Ms. Eckholm is a fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Urban Tech Hub. In 2022, she served on the “New” New York Panel, created by the city and New York State to revitalize New York’s central business districts after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the past decade, there has been much hand-wringing about New York’s puzzling empty storefront problem, with vacancy rates sitting north of 15 percent last fall in some of the city’s most celebrated areas. How did streets, from the East to the West Village, once home to the urbanist Jane Jacobs, a champion of the city’s neighborhoods, become so hollow?
Rent escalation and the shift to e-commerce are, of course, obvious culprits. But behind the scenes, an important, largely overlooked factor is New York City’s zoning code, enacted in 1961. Written in the face of fears of overcrowding, the code incorporated the postwar planning ideology that New Yorkers would live in tranquil residential neighborhoods and commute by car to office jobs in Midtown or to factory jobs on the city’s periphery. The code also reflected an anachronistic, and at times elitist, view that limited where and how small businesses could operate. Businesses that might disrupt the peace were, in effect, banned in much of the city, to protect the “nicer” neighborhoods where wealthier New Yorkers were meant to reside.
Today, over half a century later, the Department of City Planning is finally trying to overhaul the 1961 code and revive much of the mixed-use character and serendipitous storefront activity that gives New York its soul. The plan — known as City of Yes for Economic Opportunity — is part of a trio of initiatives from the Adams administration, aimed at bolstering business activity, building more housing and navigating the city toward carbon neutrality.