Newstand-vaganza: There’s Not Always Enough Sidewalk for the Both of Us



With its high pedestrian traffic, Midtown provides a great economic opportunity for budding newsstand owners. But the high pedestrian traffic also limits where stands can open. Photo: Jason Slotkin

Software developer Abhay Mehta says that among sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles, his Indian-American family owns nearly 30 newsstands in New York, including his father’s stand on West 36thand Broadway, which he has owned since 1996.

In 2003, Mehta’s father set out to open his second stand. He submitted the application, the fee, and a design of the stand that the city could use to evaluate the newsstand request. This application was rejected, says Mehta. “We do understand [the process] but a person like my dad, who is 76 years old now, they just want to make a living,” said Mehta.

For aspiring newsstand owners, opening one can be a long, complicated, and costly process, and all these efforts may end in rejection.

The owner submits a plan that details where the stand will sit, along with an application, letters to the owners of nearby buildings, and a $269 fee, which can increase to over $1000 depending on the time of year the application is submitted. The application is reviewed by the city’s transportation department, the local Community Review Board, The Art Commission, and sometimes the city’s landmark preservation department.

That’s just for the stand. Selling cigarettes requires another application. Having lotto tickets requires installing a phone line. But according to Mehta, these are two of the biggest-selling items at his family’s stands.

An approved newsstand owner goes into business having spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars, just to set up a stand that will provide him a sustainable wage and the prospect of being his own boss. But increasing costs and declining sales for products like magazines has made the newsstand business even harder.

“Right now the business on the newsstands is more than candy, soda, newspapers, cigarettes, if you’re lucky,” said Mehta.

The city must first determine that the newsstand won’t take too much sidewalk space and cause congestion for pedestrians who file down a Manhattan sidewalk each day.

High-traffic streets provide a desirable calculus for any newsstand owner – an almost limitless supply of commuters, tourists, and other pedestrians who may buy a copy of the Daily News or a pack of cigarettes on the way to their destinations.

The city’s process requires several reviews and a final approval by the Department of Consumer Affairs, which bases it decision on a “feasible” review by Department of Transportation to decide if a proposed newsstand will block sidewalk traffic.

There are currently more than 100 newsstands in Midtown, a level of saturation that makes it even more difficult to get approved.

Multiple applicants apply and get rejected for these same spots. Tom Cusick, president of the Fifth Ave. Business improvement District , says his group has lobbied for a newsstand moratorium on some of the street’s busier corners.

“I’ve tried to get the city, especially the consumer affairs department and department of transportation, to give a notice for any applicant who applies for a Fifth Ave. newsstand within this district,” said Cusick.

Cusick most recently aired his complaints about a newsstand application at Community Board Five meeting.

The board listens to local business people, residents and applicants, a more “subjective” process, says Ron Dwenger, chair of the committee that reviews applications on behalf the board, because that board members see the pedestrian traffic levels themselves on a daily basis.

The transportation department’s assessments of pedestrian traffic levels, which are calculated based on peak hours, are something the board hopes to change.“I know that a lot of them pass Department of Transportation when we suggest that the pedestrian area is too heavily traveled,” said Dwenger.

The board now has a potential ally in City Council member Daniel Garodnick, whose office is currently looking for ways to update the process. “It’s time to revisit the criteria for approving a newsstand.  Sidewalk space is increasingly precious, and communities want to offer meaningful input as to where a newsstand is appropriate — so it is worth our looking more closely at whether the rules are responsive to the needs of our residents,” said Garodick in a statement emailed from his press office.

There’s no doubt that a streamline of the process would help the newsstand owner, according to Mehta, who says the time it takes for an application to get from “desk” to “desk” has discouraged newsstand applicants for re-applying. “ That’s where the process gets slow and people give up,” said Mehta.