To the Editor
In your January issue, Arthur Z. Schwartz tries to persuade us that the 14th Street Busway “has turned 14th Street into a desolate street.” His entire evidence for this theory consists of four photographs of vacant retail properties. Let me suggest that Mr. Schwartz now turn his attention to Greenwich Ave., which has traffic in both directions and parking on both sides of the street. My impression—admittedly not backed up by any more research than is presented by Mr. Schwartz—is that the proportion of vacant retail properties there is just as high as it is on 14th Street—if not higher.
Let’s get serious about this. If Mr. Schwartz really wants to make his case, then the first thing he will have to do is to count the number of retail properties on the 14th Street Busway, and then discover what proportion of them is vacant. Having done this, he will have to do the same on a number of similar streets in the vicinity. With those data in hand, he could tell us whether 14th Street really does have an exceptionally high proportion of vacancies.
Once he has some meaningful facts, Mr. Schwartz might begin to think of explanations. It’s not clear to me what mechanism he thinks is at work on 14th Street. Before the bus lanes came in, could you really expect to pull up in front of (say) a hardware store or a supermarket, go in and make your purchases, and then drive off again? At any rate, there are a number of possible reasons for the numerous retail vacancies we see in streets around here, any or all of which might be at work on 14th St. Here are three that come immediately to mind. Retail outlets everywhere have been badly affected by the sharp rise in online shopping. Retail outlets in areas with office buildings (like 14th Street) have suffered from the huge increase in the number of those who work wholly or partly at home. And there has been a general drift of retail outlets, particularly high-end ones, from our neighborhood to the MeatPacking District. There may well also be other reasons that are not so obvious. For instance, the practice of banks in making loans to property developers has at times encouraged developers to demand absurdly high rents for retail properties even though this means leaving them unoccupied for years on end.
Frank H. Stewart