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Sunset Park businesses celebrate new Awnings Act

It’s a good sign for small businesses.

The new Awnings Act, which went into effect today, was applauded by Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, members of the Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) and local businesspeople during a press conference held on Fri. Feb. 8, outside Xinhua Book Store, 5307 Eighth Avenue, one of the businesses affected by fines over the signage.

The act was passed by the City Council in January following a huge and sudden spike in complaints against signs and awnings reported to the Department of Buildings (DOB), and a parallel spike in violations issued.

“In Community Board 7 where we are now, 90 complaints and 35 violations occurred,” Menchaca said. “The threat of a non-negotiable $6,000 fine spooked our businesses and forced them to take down their signs, which are seeing today even now after we passed the law.”

The Awnings Act will halt the issuance of sign and awning violations for two years; waive the civil penalty for any business that received a sign or awning violation on or after Dec. 28, 2017; provide a 75 percent discount for all permits related to installing a new sign for those businesses that had paid violations after that date; require the DOB, the Department of Finance, the Department of Small Business Services (SBS), and the Department of City Planning to develop outreach materials explaining how the waiver works and educate businesses about sign regulations; and create a task force comprised of city officials, labor unions, business advocates and small business owners to review all regulations pertaining to signs and awnings, and issue recommendations on how to reform them.

“We learned about [the violations] because the businesses organized on Eighth Avenue and on Fifth Avenue, across Sunset Park, and they made their voices heard,” Menchaca said. “Because the businesses came together, we knew as councilmembers that we need to solve this problem now. This is immigrant power and business power at its best.”

In November, 2018 alone, there were 234 signage-related complaints in Brooklyn, compared with 23 the same month the year before.

“This piece of legislation moved very quickly,” agreed Executive Director of the Sunset Park BID David Estrada. “It brought relief to our community. You don’t have to look far to see the damage that has been done to this neighborhood. On this block alone, there are 10 stores that have torn down their signs. You can see them. Look at the plywood and look at the wires hanging. Can you imagine the damage to retail sales for a small shopkeeper?”

One of the owners of Xinhua Book Store said through an interpreter that she had received a $6,000 summons, which she paid. She also had to pay to remove the sign, which cost more than $3,700.

Despite the bill being enacted, Estrada stressed there is more work to be done, specifically with retailers who took down their signs before receiving a violation, but need help getting their signs legalized.

The two-year moratorium on sign violations, speakers said, will give the city the time it needs to review the relevant regulations carefully and thoughtfully to make sure this crisis never happens again.

“The two-year moratorium allows multiple stakeholders to organize and develop a more robust and long term solution to this issue,” said CB 7 Chair Cesar Zuniga. “This is just the beginning of a long overdue process of reforming laws that are on the books that create unnecessary obstacles for small businesses. If New York City is to preserve the spirit of a city that has historically stood for opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs, then we must stay focused on the tasks of removing barriers.”

“This bill not only eases business owner insecurity, but proves that by working closely with elected officials we can help our communities grow greatly and safely,” added Louie Liu, vice president of the Brooklyn Community Improvement Association.  “We look forward to continuing to work with Councilman Menchaca and all city agencies to increase business growth.”

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