How many storefronts sit vacant in Hell’s Kitchen? With the help of a West Side Community Fund Grant, the W42ST team surveyed all of the neighborhood’s empty businesses — and counted more than 200 across the area’s four zip codes.
While some windows have long been gathering dust, prompting residents and lawmakers to search for new ways to restore life to the city’s thoroughfares, others are poised for a comeback as up-and-coming New York businesses move in.
W42ST’s Catie Savage carefully canvassed Hell’s Kitchen’s streets and documented each of the 200 closures, taking note of businesses that had been empty for months (or years) and signage indicating an imminent new tenant. Some of the neighborhood’s vacant storefronts have been empty for so long that they’ve become landmarks — like the shuttered Starbucks on W47th Street and 9th Avenue, closed for six-plus years and now the site of frequently rotating street murals from artist Captain Eyeliner; summer patio favorite Blockhead’s at One Worldwide Plaza on W50th between 8/9th Avenue; Donna Bell’s Bakeshop at W49th between 8/9th Avenue, a family-named business that suffered from pandemic-related revenue loss; and the large vacant lot at W42nd Street and 12th Avenue where bowling alley Lucky Strike recently auctioned off its furniture and bowling equipment.
Other closures are more recent, with many blaming a lack of fairly distributed federal COVID-19 support through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund — leaving them with no choice but to shutter. Award-winning coffee shop Kahve on W51st Street between 9/10th Avenue closed in January after over a decade in business around the neighborhood due to COVID-19-era hardships — joining at least 50 other Hell’s Kitchen favorites that shuttered during the pandemic, including local go-tos Empire Coffee and Tea (9th Avenue bw W41/W42nd St) and Kodama Sushi (W45th St bw 8/9th Ave).
Among the recent casualties were several West Side watering holes, including the iconic Holland Bar on 9th Avenue between W38th and W39th Street, a favorite for everyone from Hell’s Kitchen-lifers to the late Anthony Bourdain; Twins Irish Pub, closed and set to be demolished after 52 years on 9th Avenue between W33rd and W34th Street; and The Green Door, another dive bar now closed on W57th Street between 11th and 12th Avenue.
There are also hotly-contested closures. Casellula, a W42ST reader favorite that also employed many local residents, was purchased by wine bar franchise Vin Sur Vingt in 2022, but after disputes with the legacy staff over wage policies, abruptly shuttered in January 2023 with no current plans to reopen.
Savage also noted that some of the neighborhood’s largest or most prominent real estate still remains closed to the public. Big-box pharmacy Duane Reade closed several of its most highly-trafficked locations at W42nd Street and 8th Avenue, 9th Avenue between W43rd/W44th Street as well as W47th Street and 8th Avenue in the span of less than a year. The former Southern Hospitality space at W45th Street and 9th Avenue closed in 2019 and shortly thereafter became Ainsworth Social — but has sat empty since late 2020. A former Lexus car dealership on 11th Avenue between W46/W47th Street was proposed as the venue for a large-scale nightclub, but community concerns over design safety, capacity and noise risk have stalled plans for now.
But there’s some good news, with several locally-minded business teams actively working to regenerate some of the neighborhood’s empty spaces. Maren and John Powell — founders of Chow Down NYC which operates the popular ‘ritas, El Centro, and B Side Pizza — are committed to bringing new concepts into their own (and others’) shuttered spaces. Maren revealed that they are renovating Hell’s Kitchen on 9th Avenue — which temporarily became the seasonal Sleigh Bar this winter — into a new concept to be announced soon, and readying to open a new Mediterranean spot called Gilda where popular bar Barrage once stood on W47th Street between 8/9th Avenue. They’ve also leased the spot at W47th Street and 9th Avenue once housing the popular Down the Road pub and will be opening a new coffee-to-cocktail bar space.
Restaurateurs Stéphane Bibeau and Adam Schop hope to make lower 9th Avenue the new “Restaurant Row” — opening new French eatery Steak Frites bistro and classic slice shop Zillions Pizza near the avenue, with more projects on the way.
And despite the revolving door of closures and openings on the West Side, one specific new business has flourished in Hell’s Kitchen — the smoke shop. A few are licensed to sell tobacco, while others are betting on the city’s previously lax enforcement on recreational marijuana licenses. As a result, Savage spotted at least 38 smoke shops across Hell’s Kitchen, including Strand Han’s Dry Cleaner at 10th Avenue and W43rd Street, recently transformed into the Pink Treezzz smoke shop. Mayor Eric Adams, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and West Side lawmakers like City Council Member Gale Brewer have vowed to enact stricter inspection and eviction policies around the city’s gray-market stores, leaving many to wonder whether the quickly multiplying cottage industry will be snuffed out — leading to more empty storefronts.
Things I Learned Walking All The Streets and Avenues of Hell’s Kitchen
By Catie Savage
Over the course of a month I walked every block of Hell’s Kitchen, taking note of empty storefronts, smoke shops and construction projects. You don’t realize how long the blocks are until you are zigzagging from 8th Avenue to the Highway and it takes nearly an hour to cover just three streets. Of course, this was not at my typical power walking pace, but by the end of the audit I logged about 30 miles.
A fast-casual cluster is taking shape on 8th Avenue from W53th to W56th Streets with Chick-Fil-A, Wingstop, Sophie’s, Bread & Honey, Pizza Hut, Popeye’s, Wendy’s, Dave’s Hot Chicken and McDonald’s. Unfortunately, the PF Chang’s To-Go at 885 8th Ave STILL isn’t open after being announced in August 2021.
Having lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, split roughly in half between southern and northern Hell’s Kitchen, this experience was a walk down memory lane. Many areas in the southern portion have drastically changed over the past decade, particularly near Hudson Yards.
There used to be a McDonald’s — complete with parking lot and drive through window — at the southwest corner of West 34th Street and 10th Avenue. I would run past it on my way to the river, an outlier along the vast railyards to the south. Now that area is so filled with tall buildings I still find it hard to get my bearings when I am over there.
Sadly, many places I used to frequent during my nine years on West 36th Street are gone, including Sugar Deli Food Center, the little Yemeni Candy Store, Thai Select, Atomic Wings and Hudson Station. Not to leave out my current home in northern Hell’s Kitchen, I am still mourning the loss of Kahve, Donna Bell’s Bake Shop and Blockheads.
Things change quickly in our fast-paced city. Just after completing the audit, Chirpin’ Chicken at 587 9th Avenue closed to much surprise and outcry from the community. I wonder how many other stores closed during the month-long audit? On the flip side, some of the empty storefronts have since opened, with Barami at 519 8th Avenue quickly pivoting as a tourist gift shop and Strand Han’s Cleaner at 500 West 43rd now a smoke shop called Pink Treezzz — with three Z’s.
And in a city where the number of empty storefronts is always subject to change, how can lawmakers track — and remedy — long-standing vacancies?
- Empty Storefront Data Collection: City Council Member Gale Brewer is one of several local legislators who has supported a more granular monitoring system, creating a Small Business Task Force as Borough President and sponsoring the 2019 Empty Storefront Tracker Bill (Local Law 157) that created a mapped tracking process to analyze empty storefronts across the city. Brewer has now proposed new legislation to improve data collection. “We need more data, and we’re pushing for the Department of Finance to shore up collection,” Brewer told W42ST.
- Federal Grants: In March 2022, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce received an $800,000 federal grant for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Storefront Revitalization & Small Business Entrepreneurship Project to “support data-mapping to identify geographic areas where storefront vacancies are concentrated and revitalization efforts are most needed and to support targeted economic development.” W42ST has inquired with the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce about the results and current status of the project and we will update if we hear back.
- Commercial Rent Regulation: In 2019, then-Brooklyn Council Member Stephen Levin filed a proposal to regulate commercial rents, which ruffled the feathers of The Council of New York Cooperative and Condominiums and the Real Estate Board of New York, both of whom voiced opposition to the bill. After Levin left office in January 2022, the proposal was reintroduced as Bill Int-0093 / The Commercial Rent Stabilization Act (CRSA) by District 8 City Council Member Diana Ayala, and is currently being discussed by the Committee on Small Business.
Some small business owners and advocates argue, however, that the CRSA is a far more watered-down version than Bill-0737-2018 / The Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a proposal written by small business advocate Soo Kim and most recently introduced by former City Council Member (and current Department of Transportation Commissioner) Ydanis Rodriguez that hasn’t been actively discussed in the current City Council since it was filed at the end of the 2021 session.
Marni Halasa, one of the operators of The Purple Tongue (replacing Adella at W43rd Street between 9/10th Avenue) and a former candidate for City Council, argues that CRSA is missing a key option: the option for business owners to renew long-term leases. “The Commercial Rent Stabilization Bill is a poor substitute and inferior legislation to the Small Business Job Survival Act,” said Halasa, “because it doesn’t give business owners the right to renew long-term 10-year leases — and one of the reasons for all the vacant storefronts is that when the lease ends, the landlord then can jack up the rent exponentially.”
Halasa cited the closure of the Sugar Deli Food Center on 9th Avenue between W36/W37th Street as a prime example of the need for long-term renewals in legislation. “They were in that space for about 20 years and were paying $4,000 [a month],” said Halasa. The landlord sold the building to another landlord and then the rent went up to $60,000 [a month].” Halasa, who at the time was operating Red Eye Coffee with her husband Peter just down the street from Sugar Deli on 9th Avenue and W34th Street, said the owners told her that a huge increase forced them to close, affecting not only their livelihoods and that of their employees, but removing an essential food resource for local residents. “It was a really important supermarket because they accepted the WIC program and they accepted food stamps,” said Halasa, “and it was very helpful for low-income families in the area.”
Halasa argues that the CRSA doesn’t offer small businesses the power to renew their locked-in lease prices, and is backed by large-scale real estate developers rather than independent entrepreneurs. “I personally think that Commercial Rent Stabilization Bill was created in order to kill SBJSA,” said Halasa. “I think they are pitching it as a be-all, end-all solution to keep small businesses in their spaces, but actually it’s an inferior bill. And any business owner is going to want the right to renew the lease at an affordable rent.”
City Council Member Brewer said that while her newly proposed commercial vacancy legislation is not commercial rent regulation, there are elements included to help small businesses navigate lease renewal and rent pricing. According to the bill’s proposal, “For any tenancy of more than one year, the bill would require a written lease for storefront premises. In addition, the bill provides for lease renewal procedures and the option to extend the lease in certain cases for up to one year with not more than a ten percent rent increase.”
The NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS) also has several initiatives planned to assist store owners navigate the city’s commercial rent system. A spokesperson told W42ST that the SBS launched the Commercial Lease Assistance Program in 2018 to “help eligible businesses with signing a new commercial lease; amending, renewing, or terminating an existing commercial lease; and addressing other commercial lease-related issues.” The program will continue to be funded through 2027 in the amount of $5 million per year.
State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal believes additional legislation to hold landlords accountable for their vacancies is needed — particularly those who have purposely left storefronts vacant rather than accept ready-and-willing commercial tenants. Hoylman-Sigal has sponsored Senate Bill S5686, which proposes that cities with a population of over one million people be allowed to tax vacant commercial properties.
“In each of the five boroughs, we find storefronts that have remained vacant for years on end — despite substantial demand from a wide range of retail tenants. Some landlords have done their best to make adjustments to a retail market in flux. However, others have refused to accept tenants who are ready to enter into a lease, instead holding out for even-higher rent levels or waiting for a deep-pocketed national chain to come along,” reads the bill’s proposal. “While neither scenario is guaranteed to materialize for the landlords, in the meantime, communities are all but assured to be blighted by darkened storefronts, unkempt pedestrian rights of way, and accumulations of snow and ice, all while local businesses get pushed out of neighborhoods where they have been fixtures for years.”
“It’s incredibly discouraging as a resident,” Hoylman-Sigal said of the proliferation of empty storefronts in the area. “Clearly, part of it is due to the Amazon Effect, as well as COVID-19 — so we have to understand that the entirety of the blame is not at the feet of landlords. There are a lot of economic forces too, but empty storefronts invite nefarious activities and frankly, they’re a matter of both quality of life and supporting small businesses.”
He added, “We need to do everything in our power to encourage landlords to rent these spaces out. We know that some of these landlords are absent — many of these buildings are owned by non-New York City landlords. We know that some landlords hold out for what they call ‘credit-worthy’ tenants rather than rent to a small business in the neighborhood. Our legislation creating the commercial vacancy tax would go a long way to preventing this.”
Senator Hoylman-Sigal added that he believed in addition to legislation at the state level, the city should create financial incentives for landlords to fill vacant storefronts sooner. “I think a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach is warranted,” he said, “and we have the legislation that’s partly ‘stick’.”
Though one might be tempted to assume between high commercial rents and the lingering challenges of COVID-19 that it’s near impossible to truly curb Midtown’s many empty storefronts, there are still signs of hope around Hell’s Kitchen, with dozens of new businesses opening in 2022. Popular gay bars Boxers and the 9th Avenue Saloon, both shuttered during the pandemic, have returned. Club Therapy became the equally well-attended Hush at W52nd between 8th and 9th Avenue. American Retro pub, once on 11th Avenue, found a prime new spot on 9th Avenue between W52nd and W53rd Street. Fans of the fire-damaged Taboon will soon get to enjoy Chef Efi Naon’s signature cuisine at the original space on W52nd Street and 10th Avenue when it reopens as Frena. French eatery Le Privé on 10th Avenue between W44th and W45th — shuttered by an ongoing court case against its owner — will soon offer exclusively gluten-free pasta at the newest outpost of Senza Gluten by Jemiko.
The beloved Real Pam Thai closed — but newcomer Lum Lum has hit the Hell’s Kitchen scene to rave reviews. Swiss eatery Mont Blanc at W52nd between 8/9th Avenue has transformed into a new Italian eatery, Via Toscana. Shuttered theater hotspot Thalia at W50th Street and 8th Avenue will soon host new cast parties at Carnegie Diner. The Livanos family-owned Molyvos comes to the neighborhood from its Carnegie Hall location, taking the place of Esca at 9th Avenue and W43rd Street. Qi has transformed into new Chinese eatery The Corner on W48th Street and 9th Avenue, and the popular Clyde Fraziers on W37th Street and 10th Avenue is due for an exciting new, not-yet-public concept in the near future.
And if there’s one block in Hell’s Kitchen to serve as the visual metaphor for the area’s constant rebirth, it’s 9th Avenue between W51st and W52nd Street. In January 2020, before the pandemic, W42ST posted an image of nearly a full block of vacancy signs; now the prominent section of Hell’s Kitchen boasts the newest outpost of Georgian restaurant Cheeseboat, Southern Thai hotspot Chalong, Craft and Carry Beer and Peruvian cuisine at Kausa.
While the slew of closures over the last few years has proven that no local business is immortal, the influx of scrappy newcomers and beloved revivals proves more than ever that, as musician Richard Hell once said: “Things always change — and New York teaches you that.”
The data for this survey of Hell’s Kitchen’s Empty Storefronts was produced with the help of a West Side Community Fund Grant. You can download the dataset at w42st.info/HKEmptyStorefrontsFeb2023. The information was collected by walking in a period of a month from the end of January 2023 to mid-February 2023.