Updated at 4:28 p.m. ET on December 3, 2018.
What’s really going on with retail in New York City?
According to some, the sky is falling. As one representative of the real-estate company Douglas Elliman told The New York Times, 20 percent of Manhattan’s retail space is vacant. A separate survey from Morgan Stanley determined that a similar share of street-level retail space along the borough’s most high-end corridors is “available,” meaning that it’s either vacant or seeking a new lease-holder. It’s as if the global capital of capital is becoming a rich ghost town, as I recently wrote.
Or maybe this is an invented crisis. That 20 percent statistic? It’s a complete fabrication, according to Rebecca Baird-Remba, a reporter for the Commercial Observer. Alternative estimates from the city and other real-estate companies peg the city’s vacancy rate at 10 percent or even lower.
There are a couple of reasons for this retail Rashomon. First, Manhattan store vacancies aren’t like GDP; there isn’t one official and well-regarded measure. Instead, there are several means of quantifying the city’s retail health, which makes it easy for partisans to pick and choose their favorite stats to fit a narrative. Second, it all depends on what one means by “New York.” To a West Village denizen, the world is the West Village, and the world is a late-capitalist paradox of blighted affluence. To a resident of Hell’s Kitchen, everything’s just fine. Steven Soutendijk, the executive managing director of the real-estate-services company Cushman & Wakefield, recently walked 18 blocks along Ninth Avenue at my request, counting 246 storefronts in total and only 13 for-rent signs in vacant stores. A 5.3 percent vacancy rate doesn’t sound like much to worry about—because it isn’t.