When arts superstore Creativity (above) opened in
Forest Hills, one arts supply store closed, and another, Art World (below) switched the
bulk of its business to framing. This month Creativity went out of business, leaving no
art supply stores in the neighborhood.
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes just the same
These lyrics, written by folksinger Malvina Reynolds in the early 1960s, captured the
darker side of suburban life.
This new housing may have been fabricated at fabulously low cost, but such "little
boxes" lacked variety, and from the Gulf Stream waters to the New York Island
"they all looked just the same."
Three decades later, we have learned to love our "little boxes," but have
only begun to wrestle with their larger cousins, "big box stores."
Big boxes, or as they are more often called, megastores, have for some time been
staples around the country. But fitting big boxes into the tangled urban landscape has
been problematic for developers, city planners, and both their residential and commercial
This is one of the reasons that the biggest of all big boxes, Wal-Mart, has steered
clear of the New York metropolitan area.
Megastore contractors and developers say that big boxes provide a big business boost to
the community, and sell large quantities of "ticky tacky" at discount prices.
Megastore detractors on the other hand contend that the Home Depots and Targets of the
world squeeze out the "little guy," infringe upon residents quality of
life, and "all look just the same."
The stories of small, defenseless businesses being squashed by big bad megastores have
been reported across the country. But in Queens, what has been given greater attention is
their impact on quality of life, particularly in cases in which the big box store is
placed on the bor-der of a residential neighborhood.
Battling Big Boxes
Concerned that in many cases developers are free under the city zoning laws to build
big box stores without a community hearing, Queens Assemblyman Michael Cohen is putting
forth legislation that would eliminate "as of right" construction for megastores
in the outer boroughs.
Economists agrue that small grocers can still compete
The problem, said Cohen, is that the zoning laws address function not scale.
Stores such as Home Depot enjoy "as of right" status because they are hardware
stores, even though they are extremely large hardware stores, open 24-hours a day.
"This bill would act to supercede as of right status for stores over
10,000 square feet," said Cohen.
In effect, such megastores would have to go through the same land use procedures that
are required of developments needing a variance.
While some are concerned that over-regulating may discourage companies from bringing
their businesses to the area, Cohen disagrees. "This is not anti-business," he
said. "We just want to ensure that communities have a say in the economic development
of their neighborhoods. This will allow the community to consider the environmental
impact, air pollution, noise pollution, traffic congestion, as well as the economic impact
on mom and pop stores."
If this bill had been in effect, developments such as Queens Home Depots, Forest
City Ratners controversial plan to build a multiplex in Forest Hills, and the
Edwards Superstore on Grand Avenue in Maspeth would not have been allowed to proceed
"as of right."
According to Cohen, he has support from a strong contingent of city Assembly members.
But in order for the bill to be passed by the state legislature, because it specifically
addresses the city, it will first have to first be looked at by the City Council.
The Charm of Mom and Pop
Some analysts credit Megastore development with
improving the infrastructure of commercial strips like 20th Avenue in College Point.
Zoning issues aside, the principal criticism of megastores is that they maim Main
Street, sending longtime staples in the neighborhood packing. Consumers themselves admit
to a certain guilt when choosing low prices over the personal touch.
"Its complicated," said contractor Dale Johnson, while purchasing
plumbing supplies at the Home Depot on College Point Boulevard in Flushing. "I used
to go to my neighborhood hardware store, but as long as you know what you are doing then
you cant do better than Home Depots prices."
But many hardware stores have managed to survive, even only a couple of miles from Home
"Weve been open for 35 years," said Matthew Costello of Jeres
Hardware in Fresh Meadows. "Large stores try to take away customers with slightly
cheaper prices, but consumers feel more welcome here; its easier to find help when
explanations are needed. Customers know theyre not going to be stuck in long
lines thats why contractors prefer us. True, we cant match all their
prices and selection, but you do the best with what you got."
Art Supply And Demand
Home Depot, described as a Category
Killer has been accused of putting mom and pop hardware stores out of business.
But the impact of the megastore on a neighborhood is often more complex than
first meets the eye. The arrival of megastores often puts smaller stores out of business,
but what happens when the megastore itself cant cut it? Forest Hills residents,
particularly those interested in arts and crafts, just found out.
Two years ago, when an arts superstore called Creativity opened on Austin Street next
to Barnes and Noble, several longtime businesses in the neighborhood were effected.
Pinskys, an art supply and stationary store which was one of the oldest
businesses on the block, closed. Art World, which is located only a couple of hundred feet
from Creativity, stopped selling art supplies and shifted its business mainly to framing.
Last month, Creativity announced that it was going out of business. The coming and
going of the megastore had left Austin Street with no art supply stores.
The owner of Art World said he was sad to see them go.
"We welcomed Creativity with open arms," said Joe Basile, owner of Art World.
"It wound up that we didnt lose the art supplies businessCreativity ended
up giving us more framing business."
The problem, said Chris Collett, of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, was that
Creativity may have been too big for its own good.
"They took too much space," he said. "It was such a big property that
either they were going to make it big, or they were not going to make it all."
Creativity, which has two stores in Nassau county, plans to open a third store there as
Some analysts content that elected officials are not examining the more subtle effect
that megastores have on communities, upsetting the symbiotic relationship between
residential, commercial, and industrial zones.
According to a study called "The Big Squeeze," released this week by the
Center for an Urban Future, the greatest obstacle to industry in the city is no longer
high taxes, but higher rents. And part of the reason for the higher rents, explains the
report, is that manufacturing zones have been converted for use by megastores, which
subsequently raise the rents in the surrounding blocks.
"The city has used the outer boroughs as a dumping ground," said Jonathan
Bowles, author of the study. "Industrial zoned land has been used for sex shops and
big box superstores. These superstores often lead to speculation, and higher real estate
prices. Around the Home Depot in Flushing, the rents have more than doubled."
The report found that the borough-wide vacancy rate for industrial space has shrunk by
30 percent since 1995 to 9.42 percent. And for firms looking for medium and large
properties, the vacancy rate is barely three percent. This, according to Bowles, has led
many businesses to move elsewhere.
"The main point we are trying to make is that there should be better planning as
to where these stores are allowed to locate," said Bowles. "Industrial areas
cannot survive a Home Depot."
Officials Take On Mega
By RICHARD SCHACK
While efforts have been put forward to regulate how, when, and where megastores can be
built in the city, elected officials continue to have very different views on what, if
any, these regulations should be.
"Officials are often very reluctant to support megastores, as these stores can go
so far as to change the way of life in some areas, due to traffic problems being
created," said State Senator Serphin Maltese.
Despite the problems they pose for local businesses, Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio
feels the competition megastores provide is a good thing. "The most important thing
the competition does is make a better situation for consumers," he said. "It
gives the consumer more of an ability to make deals. The shoppers benefit from both
cheaper prices and a wider selection. I would like to see more megastores open in
"Shoppers should not have to leave Queens to do their shopping," added
Community Board 6 district manager Kathleen Reilly. "These stores bring too much to
the economy of Queens to focus on the problems they create, such as traffic and parking.
The smaller shops are able to compete in different ways. Upgrading, downgrading, whatever
they have to do to find their niche and stay competitive. Also there is nothing like
personal service, which mom and pop shops can easily offer."
"Every situation is a different ballgame. In a community where there is a lack of
shopping, unutilized commercial space can be an asset," said Community Board 5
District Manager Gary Giordano.
With megastores putting so many mom and pop shops in jeopardy, should small stores be
protected by the city? "Local merchants who have been in business for decades must be
protected; the city should provide a relocation program for displaced merchants,"
noted 16th district Senator Leonard Stavisky
Some feel if there were strong restrictions and guidelines regarding the zoning of
megastores, merchants wouldnt have to relocate. "It sounds good in theory, but
is not that easy. Good examples would be Toys R Us and Home Depot, in which by
law there can be no restrictions on toy or hardware stores," explained State Senator
"Of course there should be some restrictions, including regulating 24 hour stores
in residential areas. Megastores are fine so long as they dont adopt a
community-be-damned attitude," added Maltese.
"Those merchants struggling should be somewhat protected, but not precluding
further development. In Southeastern Queens, where there are no megastores, residents
should not have to travel out of the borough for their shopping needs," said Rep.
"We need a combination, a delicate balance of large and small shops. Large stores
often help communities, creating jobs, but too much of anything can be bad, and
thats why we need guidelines, a master plan that must be followed. A megastore
opening should be compatible with what is already in the community," added Meeks.
"Sometimes these large chains can do more harm than good, displacing long-standing
family businesses out. Community Board 5 is not looking forward to Home Depot opening on
Woodhaven Boulevard, the revenue just is not worth it," added Giordano.
"Often, the city fails to take into account things like infrastructure, as well as
traffic problems," said Stavisky. Thanks to megastores, it has become very difficult
to drive on 20th Avenue and Lefferts Place, which makes for a very difficult situation,
especially with the rather large senior population. Due to these problems, we have
requested a traffic study of Linden. The revenue brought in is welcome, but there are
other factors that must be taken into account. This is definitely an issue the city should
be revisiting," Stavisky added.