The New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District is facing a threat from an unexpected source — the New York State Liquor Authority. Under New York State Law, applicants for a liquor store license, wine store license and on-premises license cannot be within 200 feet of a school, church, synagogue or other place of worship. Due to the quilt-pattern of existing churches and schools in the area and the recent proliferation of storefront churches along the Main Street corridor in the heart of the BID, all but a half block area between Division Street and Centre Avenue is now off-limits to new bars, restaurants or nightclubs. This does not affect businesses which have continually operated with a liquor license before a church opened within 200 feet of that establishment but does impact a location that changes owners.
In the past two years three new storefront churches have opened on Main Street in the heart of New Rochelle’s Business Improvement District. The most recent signed a lease over the summer.
The New Rochelle BID, created in 2000, describes itself as a a non-profit association of over 800 business and property owners whose prime goal is economic development, new business and new investment. The BID’s mission involves attracting shoppers to downtown, recruiting new businesses, and providing enhanced services all while preserving the charm and appeal of this commercial center as the historic heart of the greater New Rochelle community.
The BID, aware of the threat to downtown development, has raised the issue of a zoning exclusion for storefront churches with the City of New Rochelle’s Office of the Corporation Council but was told there was nothing that could be done as Churches are protected.
In addition to limiting the development of new restaurants and bars in the downtown area and effectively restricting the sale of existing establishments, the BID fears the proliferation of storefront churches in downtown will undermine the efforts to develop a vibrant shopping area downtown.
“Religious organizations are an extremely important and valued part of our community, however, there needs to remain a balance between daytime uses such as stores and restaurants, which create a critical mass of activity that attracts the public and uses, such as religious facilities, that are primarily dormant during the weekdays, said Ralph DiBart, Executive Director of the BID.
If too many non-business uses open” DiBart added “the perception becomes that Main Street looks closed during the week and the vitality of a healthy Main street for all citizens suffers.
DiBart acknowledged that the City is powerless to block the creation of a row of storefront churches populating the Main Street business corridor.
“Since the location of where religious organizations are able to open is protected”, he said, “I hope that property owners, religious organizations and businesses can realize this and seek a healthy balance.”
Proponents of the storefront churches want to see more religious activity on Main Street.
“I want Main Street to become the holiest street in America,” said one such proponent, who did not wish to be identified.
These proponents believe storefront churches are a vital part of the re-development of downtown that will bring new people to the BID area. They are actively working to bring more storefront churches into the area which they believe will enhance downtown New Rochelle as a shopping district, pointing out that one storefront church already operates a retail business as part of the church.
Most business owners, however are less enthusiastic.
“I am not alone in my concerns that the restrictions that come with more storefront churches translates into less investment in the downtown area,” said Candace Denslow, owner of Consign It On Main a resale shop specializing in high end furniture, jewelry, and art.
Harry Willis, an attorney with the New York State Department of State, agrees. In a response to a question about storefront churches posed by the Downtown Developer for the City of Oneonta, published on the New York State Urban Council web site, Willis noted several ways in which storefront churches pose challenges for business districts including creating the appearance of artificial barriers to a shopping area.
When shoppers walking along a sidewalk looking in retail storefront windows suddenly come across a non-retail use, they instinctively interpret that to mean that they have reached the end of the retail district, the odds are good they will turn around, which obviously hurts retail businesses located beyond the non-retail storefront.
The same web site contains a response from the City of New Rochelle.
In New Rochelle, churches are allowed by right in all zones. However, they must meet zoning requirement regarding height, size, parking etc. We recently had a very raucous zoning variance situation that wound up costing the synagogue applicant over $ 1million in study fess. They obtained 12 variances – a city record. They have now been challenged under an Article 78 by surrounding neighborhood groups.
Better have your Corporation Counsel review case law (especially federal) on the issue. It’s quite liberal when it comes to religious groups.
In addition to the store front churches, at least two commercial spaces in New Rochelle are used for religious services on the weekend. a basement space at 145 Huegenout and Theater 16 at Regal Cinemas’ New Roc City multiplex.