Dear Editrix: Perhaps residents concerned about vacant storefronts will want to be reminded of the longer-term context.
(reprinted upon request)
During the 2002 election campaign, we counted storefronts. Including gas stations I think we came to a total of about 235 within the Village of Larchmont (VoL), Palmer side and Post Road side. At that time there were maybe 10 vacancies, 5% which was low by comparison to the outside world, and so it wasn’t much of an issue then.
But back in the mid 90’s many of the prominent retail locations were empty, similar to current situation. The vacancies gave rise, from time to time, to ideas such as hiring an economic development coordinator on VoL staff, or a village manager who could “solve the problem,” or paying for staff for the Chamber of Commerce. Those ideas always raised budget concerns.
My view was that there is no real economic development to be had for VoL, which is fully built out. On the other hand, there are good fundamental reasons why the vacancy rates rise and fall periodically, generally in tune with the business cycle.
· There are few, if any, destination stores. Most are convenience or mom and pop stores typically found in bedroom suburbs — nail salons, dry cleaners, small jewelry, shoes, restaurants and bar (my recall is 31 of those), gas stations and auto dealers (Post Road was a major overland artery for 200 years). And most stores have too little space to produce economies of scale needed to attract larger operations.
· Most Chamber of Commerce members need to spend time to make their shops pay, not work on Chamber volunteer projects. So there is rarely a consistent moving force behind the Chamber — sometimes there’s little more energy, sometimes a little less, but not really a great push over extended periods. Landlords of the vast majority of properties are not members, and so don’t share in the costs or other burdens of the Chamber.
· Another problem is we have two business districts at opposite sides of the village. By way of illustration parking on the Post Road side is worse, and foot traffic is lower. These facts propel different interests, which also contributes to problems in the Chamber.
· The stores that open during the business cycle upticks tend to be more whimsical in nature, and so tend to be vulnerable to collapsing on the downturns. Upticks make more money available to “non-professionals.” The result is vacancies in the downturns, especially in the smaller spaces.
· Most landlords are absentee. They don’t feel the pressure directly from the neighbors to fill storefronts, or make repairs. They also feel less constraint on maximizing rents during the upticks. This also contributes to the collapse of marginals, and every now and again of real long-term contributors. For those who entertain this notion that somehow rents should be controlled, that would likely be declared unconstitutional.
· Parking. The conventional wisdom is that if you give business districts more and more, that will increase store traffic, and so translate into reduced vacancy rates. That seems to me tempting, but a false proposition.
Parking is free at the railroad station on weekends, so if you want to shop on Palmer, you’ve got 350 spaces to choose from. Few do. More likely, the reality is that residents perceive a shortage of parking because they can’t find a spot in front of the store they want when they want it. For example, residents are happy with our insistence on maintaining rights to night-time parking in the CVS lot, because it doesn’t require much walking to the restaurants, unlike the RR station lot. The more fundamental concern in my mind is that if you build more parking, it will be easier for more people to drive to shopping, and the risk is they will do just that. If so, it would clog the streets even more (especially on streets leading to the parking) and make traffic even more impossible than it already is. Worse, it would create pedestrian/bicycle safety issues for adults and kids, by virtue of sheer numbers. Those are the very same adverse effects that propelled our successful fight against IKEA.
Vacancies in the commercial districts that have come and gone with the business cycle are not good reasons to resurrect discussions of such a bad idea.
–Ken Bialo was a Larchmont Trustee from 1991- 2002 and Mayor from 2002-2006