Proposal to Limit Size of Banks and Other Storefronts in the Upper West Side Awaits Vote from Full Council [UPDATE: City Council Approves Proposal]

The Belnord Apartments

Banking group claimed proposed limitations on widths of new ground floor storefronts along Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, and Columbus Avenue unfairly discriminate against banks. On June 21, 2012, the City Council’s Land Use Committee approved the Department of City Planning’s Upper West Side Neighborhood Retail Streets proposal. The proposal would establish two Special Enhanced Commercial Districts in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and establish limits on the widths of new and expanding ground floor retail stores, banks, and residential lobbies along portions of the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfares: Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, and Columbus Avenue. One special district would cover the majority of Amsterdam Avenue between 73rd and 110th Streets and Columbus Avenue between 72nd and 87th Streets. The other special district would cover Broadway between 72nd and 110th Streets. The proposal would also apply a C1-5 commercial overlay to a portion of one block on Columbus Avenue in order to reflect existing uses.

City Planning created the proposal in response to community concerns about the proliferation of banks with large storefronts, new retail tenants combining multiple small storefronts, and new developments providing only single-tenant, ground floor space. According to City Planning, the proposal would reinforce the neighborhood’s diverse, multi-store character, and encourage an active streetscape on the three commercial corridors.

As proposed by City Planning, enlargements of existing banks and new bank tenants within both districts would be limited to no more than 25 feet of ground floor frontage. The proposal would not limit the total number of banks in the neighborhood or restrict the configuration of bank space above the ground floor. New residential lobbies along Broadway would be limited to a width of 25 feet, while lobbies along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues would be limited to 15 feet. The proposal would require that glass or other transparent materials cover at least 50 percent of a new building’s facade between a height of two and 12 feet.

The district encompassing Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues would include additional limitations on ground floor store frontage. A minimum of two stores would be required for every 50 feet of street frontage for zoning lots at least 50 feet wide. The stores would need to have depths of at least 30 feet. New or expanding stores within the Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues district would not be permitted to exceed 40 feet in width. This limitation would not apply to schools, houses of worship, supermarkets, and pre-existing lots with less than 30 feet of frontage. Large storefronts would be grandfathered, but, if the space remained vacant for more than two years, new tenants would need to comply with the frontage limitations.

The proposal included an authorization process to allow owners or tenants to exceed the storefront limitations if the City Planning Commission found that a high ground floor vacancy existed or that a proposed use could not be configured within the permitted frontage. The proposal also included a certification process to modify the limitations for landmarked buildings.

Manhattan Community Board 7 and Borough President Scott M. Stringer supported the proposal, with both recommending several modifications. Opponents of the proposal include the New York Bankers Association, the Real Estate Board of New York, the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, and the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District.

The City Planning Commission modified the proposal during its review. The Planning Commission expanded the grandfathering provision by allowing existing large storefronts to remain even if they were vacant for more than two years. However, vacant storefronts would need to be subdivided if the space was occupied by a new bank unless the prior tenant had also been a bank. The Planning Commission also modified the proposal to give owners or tenants with valid building permits to alter or expand their storefronts six months from the proposal’s adoption to complete the work.

The Planning Commission created a new certification process to allow existing non-bank tenants to enlarge frontages up to 60 feet in width under certain conditions. According to the Planning Commission, rules will be promulgated for the new certification process. Bank tenants would still need to follow the proposal’s authorization process in order to exceed frontage limitations. Other modifications included referring proposed authorizations and certifications to the community board for a 30-day review period, and increasing the maximum width of new residential lobbies along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues from 15 to 25 feet.

Hotel Belleclaire

At the City Council’s Zoning & Franchises Subcommittee hearing on June 19, 2012, City Planning’s Laura Smith testified that there was a clear “zoning and land use-based rationale” for the limitations, and that the proposal was specifically tailored to the Upper West Side’s unique conditions. Smith explained that the area’s residential density was “largely unparalleled,” and that commercial square footage was constrained to just three commercial avenues. She pointed out that 93 percent of existing storefronts along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues would comply with the proposed limitations, and roughly half of those stores could double in size and still comply with the proposal.

Representatives of the New York Bankers Association and the owners of two landmarked buildings testified in opposition. Michael P. Smith, president of the New York Bankers Association, argued that the proposal would set an inappropriate precedent and would impose security, marketing, and other risks on banks not imposed on other commercial uses. He claimed that the proposal would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and be preempted by federal and State law.

Attorney Paul Selver, representing Extell Development Company, the owner of the Belnord Apartments at 225 West 86th Street, asked the Council to exclude the building from the proposal. Selver explained that the Belnord is obliged to maintain a commercial storefront pursuant to a Landmarks-approved master plan and a restrictive declaration under the Planning Commission’s jurisdiction. Deviations from the plan would need to be reviewed by both Landmarks and the Planning Commission. Selver stated that no other building in the area was subject to this process, and argued that the additional storefront limitations would unfairly alter Extell’s reasonable expectations created by the already agreed upon master plan. He claimed that excluding the property would not harm the proposal’s overall goals.

Attorney Sheldon Lobel, representing the owner of the landmarked Hotel Belleclaire at 2171 Broadway, asked the Council to give landmarked buildings one year from the date of obtaining a certificate of appropriateness in which to complete planned alterations or expansions.

Speakers in support of the proposal included representatives from Manhattan Community Board 7, and several residents. Local Council Members Gale A. Brewer, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Inez E. Dickens registered their support for the plan.

On June 21, 2012, the Subcommittee unanimously approved the proposal without further modification. The Land Use Committee followed suit. The full Council is expected to vote on the proposal on June 27, 2012.


Review Process
Lead Agency: CPC, Neg. Dec.
Comm. Bd.: MN 7, App’d
Boro. Pres.: App’d
CPC: App’d, 11-0-0
Council: [Updated] App’d, 48-2-0

Council: Upper West Side Neighborhood Retail Streets (N 120144 ZRM – text amend.); (C 120145 ZMM – rezoning) (June 21, 2012).

Update (6/29/2012) – On June 28, 2012, the full Council approved the proposal by a 48-2-0 vote. Council Members Vicent M. Ignizio and James S. Oddo opposed the proposal.

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