I’ve been living on the Upper West Side since the early ’90s when the area was not quite the vibrant corridor it is now. One of the curious developments in the urban fabric of Columbus Avenue are the skinny shops that exist between buildings. A while back ScoutingNY pointed out one of the skinniest magazine shops in New York, the Smoke Shop at 208 Columbus Avenue (pictured below, its official name is quite amazingly, the “Amazing Store & Smoke Shop.”). This isn’t a one-off occurrence however. The occupation of these narrow shops between buildings is part of a special zoning plan from the city of New York, which seems to have reinforced and/or extended already existing usages of in-between spaces along this avenue.
Columbus Avenue between 72nd and 87th Streets, and a large swath of Amsterdam Avenue is part of the Upper West Side Special Enhanced Commercial District. These districts are instituted in order to “promote and maintain a lively and engaging pedestrian experience along commercial avenues.” [Zoning Resolution Article XIII Ch. 2]. In addition to a 50% minimum for commercial activity along the street wall, it also allows for freedom in store size and configuration:
Overall store sizes are not restricted, and stores can be laid out with any configuration, including the basement, second story, wrapping behind, or along corner frontages.
More specifically, it allows for the unique in-between building spaces to be activated:
Any ground floor level use with a non-conforming street wall width may be continued or changed to another use
permitted by the applicable district regulations.
Here’s a roundup of some of these unique shops along Columbus Avenue, many which seem to fill the entrance of former shaftways between apartment buildings:
This one is not a shop at all but is my personal favorite, located between the old Pioneer supermarket and the restaurant Tenzan at 289 Columbus Avenue. I wonder if the pediment design was left over from any previous buildings that used to be on this site:
According to Streetsblog, skinny storefronts allow for cheaper rents and more independent stores, giving shoppers more options:
In short, the old style is a hands-down win for pedestrians. Everyone knows this — that’s one reason old retail areas in cities and towns across America have far more character than the new ones. But they just don’t build them like they used to.
Indeed, many of the shops on Columbus Avenue are quite narrow, even if not between buildings. New shops are opening every day, like the new French tea shop Palais des Thes at 194 Columbus Avenue which opened this morning. As Upper West Siders, we’re proud that at least Columbus Avenue has zoning in place to ensure a vibrant walking experience, despite the drastic changes on Broadway over the last 20 years.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.