brick and mortar

First the Gap, Then Chain Drugstores and Branch Banks. Now Comes the Next Retail Cycle: Nothing.

Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

For a while, it seemed as if the retail situation on the Upper West Side couldn’t get any worse. Pharmacies and bank branches were hogging such huge swaths of the once-varied streetscape that, in an attempt to liven things up, the City Council passed a bill requiring at least 50 percent of a store’s street-level walls to be transparent. Watching customers queue up for an ATM is, if not exactly interesting, at least better than staring at a dead wall. But then the pharmacies and bank branches started closing, an alarming development even for the people who hated them. “It has nothing to do with liking or hating chain stores!” read one comment on a recent West Side Rag story. “Chain stores are all we had left, so when they are gone there’s nothing left!” As it turns out, this was a shade too optimistic. What came next — dark stores, those spaces used by grocery-delivery apps as warehouses and aren’t open to the public — is, from the standpoint of a streetscape, worse than nothing.

So far, grocery apps have opened six dark stores on the Upper West Side. (One of the apps, Gopuff, says the public is allowed to walk in, or at least breeze through, to shop at all of its locations — though none of them is listed on the app’s website.) Their arrival feels like the grim destination we have been moving toward as a city for some time now, and at a frenzied clip since the start of the pandemic when New York split into distinct classes: people holed up in their apartments and the people who brought them stuff. I remember biking up First Avenue one afternoon last winter amid a sea of Uber Eats, GrubHub, and Seamless delivery drivers; hardly anyone else was out. Still, addicted though we are to the ease of online and app shopping, it’s unnerving to see fulfillment centers actually take over street-level retail. They’re stores that are not stores, occupying spaces designed for shopping when the shopping is all done elsewhere. This isn’t just another bad retail cycle — it’s the end of physical retail altogether.

The author Thomas Beller, who wrote a New Yorker essay about the rise of bank branches on the Upper West Side a decade ago and has lived in the neighborhood for much of his life, said that while dark stores seemed at first glance like less of an affront than the bank branches, there was something insidious about them. “I have not felt their presence, but I’ve been alarmed at the concept of them,” he told me. “The banks were billboards masquerading as retail establishments, but these are the opposite, like ‘Nothing to see.’ When Manhattan became like a mall, there was a feeling that outsiders were penetrating the fort. The banks were another iteration of that. Now this. There is this feeling of hollowing.” Maybe it feels worse here because the neighborhood has only three commercial thoroughfares to the Upper East Side’s five.

Dark stores, being more sidewalk deadening than even the branch banks that close early in the evening, pose a particular threat to some of the only stores that have, until now, remained largely unscathed by the previous retail cycles: groceries and bodegas, said Gale Brewer, the Upper West Side’s longtime and once-again councilmember. (Brewer was on the council from 2002 to 2013, then did a seven-year stint as Manhattan borough president, then got reelected to her old seat last fall.) “I don’t know if what they’re doing is legal, but I do know I want my grocery stores, bodegas, and delis to survive,” she said. Dark stores raise a lot of other issues, too, she added, from zoning — warehouses are supposed to be located in manufacturing districts, not on Broadway at 102nd — to the storage of e-bike batteries, which are essential to 15-minute deliveries but have a tendency to start fires.

This is, of course, neither new nor a problem unique to the Upper West Side; dark stores and ghost kitchens proliferated across the city during the pandemic. But it’s hard to think of a neighborhood more emblematic of the city’s once-vibrant, long-embattled retail landscape. Although it has never been one of New York’s storied shopping districts, the Upper West Side had the kind of now-rare retail ecosystem that develops over a long period of time in a densely populated neighborhood, a diverse mix of shops, restaurants, and taverns that primarily serves locals and reflects their tastes and needs. Some were destinations (H&H Bagels and the Charivari boutique, both long shuttered and fondly remembered), some were mostly destinations for Upper West Siders (Café des Artistes), but these stores came from, not to, the neighborhood. A lot of that mix is gone now, but even in the sunset of the bank-and-drugstore era, the area still has arguably the best array of grocery shopping in the city — Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Fairway, Zabar’s, Westside Market, Garden of Eden, Citarella, Morton Williams, and Gristedes, in addition to all the specialists (let us never forget to mention Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King) and every block’s bodega or deli. Those are not all great grocery stores — the Gristedes on Columbus Avenue has a 1.5-star Yelp review — but there is always somewhere to get half-and-half or an onion at the last minute. It’s hard to think of a neighborhood where 15-minute grocery-delivery apps would be more superfluous.

In the late 1980s, concerns were already rising that the less-moneyed area above 96th Street was becoming too gentrified, driving out small businesses and character. Lucy’s Surfeteria, a “bright restaurant with surfboards on the wall,” whose bar, according to the Times, doubled as stroller parking during the day, replaced the Blue Rose, a tavern known for its neighborhood bands, repeated code violations, and the owner’s aged mother, who camped out in bed next to the bar. Over the next decade, so many corporate chains inundated the neighborhood that the 1999 closing — rather than opening — of a Gap store on 86th and Columbus merited a story in the Times. (A spokesperson told the reporter the company had decided the neighborhood had enough Gaps — there were, at the time, four, including one two blocks away, and a fifth if you counted the Baby Gap. Today, the Baby Gap is all that’s left.) The new stores, whether chains or local, also tended to take up much more space than the old ones. For example, when Sugar & Plumm, a bakery on Amsterdam and 86th, opened in 2012, it displaced a diner, a shoe-repair store, a locksmith, an optometrist, and an independent children’s-clothing store. (It closed five years later, citing high rents.)

Then in the aughts, the bank branches and drugstores arrived, renting the oversize ground-floor retail spaces in the new condos rising along Broadway, spaces too large and expensive for independent businesses. It seemed unlikely that they were turning much of a profit either; it was widely suspected that they were claiming territory and renting the equivalent of very expensive billboards, perhaps with the idea of driving out competitors over time and claiming the whole area for themselves. Brewer passed the transparency bill and another that limited the size of street-level storefronts to a width of 40 feet on Amsterdam and Columbus and banks on those avenues and Broadway to 25 feet. It was an unexpected victory under Bloomberg, who was pro-business and pro-development. But as Laura Smith from Bloomberg’s planning department told the Times, “There is a unique problem on the Upper West Side.” Bank branches were in all Manhattan neighborhoods, she explained, but there was proportionally more Upper West Side street frontage devoted to them.

It seemed doubtful that fine-grained laws like store-width regulations could turn back the forces of global capitalism, but they appear to have done some good. A City Council report on retail diversity found that between 2011 and 2016, the overall number of storefronts on Amsterdam and Columbus remained constant. By contrast, on Broadway — where restrictions were applied only to banks and residential lobbies — the number of storefronts declined from 471 to 453. At 2180–2188 Broadway, a CVS and a Marshalls displaced over a dozen small stores. What might have helped the most, however, was that in late 2015 chains started reevaluating their methods, moving away from a strategy of loss-leader flagships and locations every few blocks.

When the chains closed, New Yorkers were surprised to discover they missed them. Despite their bad lighting and sterile atmospheres, the stores had become part of our routine. Another West Side Rag story—this one an op-ed from 2019 titled “As Another Duane Reade Closes, One Local Gets Genuinely Distressed” — quoted a resident named Irwin Redlener who marveled that the “presumably cold, corporate chains” had made “our little Upper West Side a real neighborhood.”

There was hope, early in the pandemic, that maybe the next retail cycle would be better than the last. Rents would fall, went the thinking, and mom-and-pops would flourish again alongside a pared-down selection of chain stores people had grown to appreciate. The vacancy rate on Amsterdam Avenue dropped from 9.6 percent at the start of 2020 to 7.4 percent by year-end. The neighborhood added seven chain stores last year after losing 42 the year before. People were working from home, buying lunch, getting takeout. Restaurants, cafés, and ice-cream shops opened. Things were actually going pretty well, Brewer said. The more balanced city a lot of people wanted was, perhaps, taking form.

And then the dark stores arrived, taking over the largest empty spaces, the ones that had been vacated by banks and pharmacies, the worst thing yet. They had — have — papered-over windows and no public-shopping policies. “Let me tell you, no one likes them. It has a demoralizing effect on the streetscape,” said Linda Alexander, a community-board member who has lived in the neighborhood since the late 1970s. And the pushback is coming, hard. Mark A. Cohen, director of retail studies at the Columbia University business school, points out that the grocery business has low margins even without free delivery. Webvan was one of the biggest busts of the dot-com era, and FreshDirect is only sometimes profitable after 18 years in business. (It also has a warehouse in the South Bronx instead of retail storefronts in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.) The apps, Cohen surmised, are getting deals on big overpriced retail spaces no one else wants and buying customers’ business with free delivery and other perks; they’ll run out of investor money probably sooner rather than later. Besides, he added, “Bodegas are survivors. They’re agile, they carry an eclectic mix of things, and what they carry is what customers want. It’s not an algorithm — it’s clipboard-style management, and it works beautifully.”

And if dark stores don’t disappear? What’s the difference if everyone gets their bananas and half-and-half in the end? The pandemic has changed a lot of things, after all, including how often many of us leave our apartments, how we shop, and what we consider an acceptable convenience. In 2019, people still worried that their neighbors and doormen would judge their online-shopping habits. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling that way now. It’s no longer shameful to have virtually everything delivered to your door; increasingly, that’s just the way the city works. Most grocery stores offer online ordering and delivery. Gorillas and Gopuff are just following the path of Instacart, FreshDirect, and Amazon Pantry.

But someday, presumably, we’ll start leaving our apartments regularly again. When we do, we’ll remember that retail spaces weren’t just places where we weighed potential disease exposure against grabbing the things we needed. They weren’t just places to shop but to socialize and browse, get a drink, escape the elements, maybe use the bathroom if you were lucky, places that sustained us during long days away from home, that were necessary to a certain way of being. That is, living out in the world, in the city, not just in our apartments — being New Yorkers. It’s convenient to have everything delivered if you’re home all the time, but who wants to be home all the time?

First the Gap, Then Banks. The Next Retail Cycle? Nothing.