Some of my earliest memories are of growing up near Columbus Avenue in the 1960s, when the place was very different from what it has subsequently become. Today, the stretch between 67th and 82nd streets is one of the most stylish thoroughfares of the Upper West Side, a tree-lined mix of residences, restaurants and boutiques, which, as reported this week, has just reached 100 percent occupancy.
Back then, however, there was no part of the Upper West Side, not even Central Park West, that was truly considered stylish, and if such a place had existed, it would certainly not have been Columbus Avenue. At that time, this stretch of the city was a ramshackle collection of TV repair shops, five and dimes, and second-hand stores that — for fear of provoking derisive laughter — would never have dared to call themselves antique dealers.
But in recent years, with the revival of Columbus Avenue’s fortunes and the Upper West Side in general, the big banks (as well as big retailers) have moved in, occupying some of the choicest corners with branches that take up as much as half a block. The presence of such banks here and throughout the city is especially to be regretted because, due to their profligate abundance, they add almost nothing to the neighborhood; they are by their very nature a boring architectural typology, and most of the time they are closed, thus constituting a dead space. And yet, because banks are national or even international corporations with money to burn, they can pay any amount of rent and, laying hold of the most conspicuous corners of the Upper West Side and occupying them with their drab and unimaginative branches.
To address this dispiriting state of affairs, and to encourage more small-scale and local shops, Community Board 7 recently voted to restrict the amount of space that storefronts and banks can occupy. The proposed rezoning will apply to the area of Columbus Avenue between 72nd and 87th streets as well as to Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway between 72nd and 110th streets and it stipulates that new retail leases be limited to 40 feet of frontage, while banks will be limited to 25 feet. In the area covered by the proposed legislation, there are already 30 banks.
Naturally, many brokers and landlords are not happy with the legislation, which has several stages of review to undergo before it goes before the City Council. Yet it is quite likely that the effect of the legislation, if it passes, will be a subtle — and maybe more than subtle — enhancement of the Upper West Side. But even if it restricts the square footage of banks going forward, unfortunately it will have no retroactive effect on those that are already there.