New York is increasingly becoming chain store city.
Looking for a "Seinfeld"-style coffee shop? It's sharing the city with 280 Starbucks and more than 530 Dunkin Donuts. A good neighborhood deli? It's competing with some 460 Subways. And the corner store may well now be a Chase bank or Walgreens.
Amid eye-popping rents and the demise of a number of well-known local haunts, some activists and lawmakers are proposing new rent-renewal rights for small businesses that they see as saving the personality of the city.
"To me, the streetscape of New York City is what sells New York City. To make a city of chain stores would not be inviting for residents or visitors," said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, among those making the proposals.
"Yes, they go to Times Square, but then they get so excited when they go to Little Italy or Chinatown .... that's what makes New York."
But in a city where small businesses—and commercial rent control proposals—have come and gone for decades, the buzz about saving storefronts is spurring debate between those who feel New York's distinctiveness is at stake and others who say the changing retail landscape represents the free market at work.
To Dr. Sam Shelanski, shops like Pearl River Mart, an emporium of all things Chinese, are a New York highlight. But the store recently said it might close later this year after 44 years in various locations because its rent was poised to jump from about $110,000 to more than $500,000 a month at its current SoHo home.
"It's another piece of what makes New York so unique and so colorful that is now gone," said Shelanski, a regular visitor from Fort Collins, Colorado.
But to landlords and real estate brokers, a booming city that draws big retail benefits both residents and visitors, and government has no business trying to protect one type of shop over another.
"The market is going to dictate whether or not a mom-and-pop's going to survive ... and when we try to stop that from happening, we're going to hurt the economy of New York," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, a major landlords' group.
Making lease renewals easier can make it harder for new shops to find space, says Greg David, a former Crain's New York Business editor who teaches journalism at the City University of New York. "The simple answer that mom-and-pops will win and national chains will lose is simply superficial," he says.