BY BENJAMIN FANG
Small businesses that were hit with steep fines for awning violations may soon receive much-needed relief.
Earlier this month, the City Council passed the Awnings Act, a local law that would implement a two-year moratorium on violations and fines related to business signs.
Stores with outstanding fines for awning violations would have not to pay them. Those that already paid will only have to pay 25 percent of their permit fees for hanging new signs.
The bill also tasks the Department of Buildings, Department of City Planning and Small Business Services to create an education program for small businesses on sign regulations.
Finally, the legislation mandates a task force comprised of city agencies, small business owners, chambers of commerce, unions and others to evaluate current rules and practices.
The bill now heads to the mayor’s desk for his signature.
Brooklyn Councilman Rafael Espinal, the prime sponsor of the bill, said the measures will help small businesses thrive.
“We know it’s getting harder and harder every single year to be a business owner,” he said. “We need to do everything we can as a council to keep their doors open.”
In stores across the city, from Bay Ridge and Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Flushing and Woodhaven in Queens, small businesses were getting hit with steep fines for improper signage.
Since November 2017, more than 2,000 violations were reported to 311 across the five boroughs. The violations included improper font size and listing a phone number on the awning.
“It was something I found to be highly suspicious, something that businesses across the entire district were complaining about,” Espinal said. “They did not understand why, after decades of having their signs up, they were being fined.”
Union Street in Downtown Flushing is a busy commercial strip filled with mostly Korean and Chinese immigrant businesses.
Within a two block radius, there are more than 200 shops, including restaurants, clothing stores, beauty supply stores and hair salons, according to Councilman Peter Koo.
But in the last several weeks, more than 60 percent have taken down their signs due to fears of receiving awning violations, Koo said. It cost the business owners between $400 to $1,000 just to take down their signs.
“This once vibrant commercial street has been reduced to a barren stirp of exposed brick and cement,” Koo said. “But the lasting impact is more severe. Profits suffer, reputations suffer.”
Ikhwan Rim, president of the Union Street Small Business Association, said the violation blitz began last winter. A DOB inspector came every two weeks, he said.
“Everybody’s thinking, am I going to be next?” Rim said. “It’s like a death sentence.”
Sometimes, an inspector would give one ticket to an entire commercial building. Other times, they would give fines to individual businesses. The penalty was anywhere between $5,000 to $8,000.
The uptick caused businesses to take down their signs. A few stores even went out of business and left Union Street.
“They say small businesses are the backbone of New York City, but it’s more like the piggy bank of New York City,” Rim said. “They’re ruining our lives.”
The effect has not only been loss of business, but confusion among customers. Rim said a postal worker recently came to drop off mail, but couldn’t find his address because there were no signs.
Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of Asian American Federation, which has been organizing small businesses in Flushing for the last several months, said she was “horrified” by the transformation on Union Street.
“I can’t recognize any of it, it looks like these weird commercial bunkers,” she said. “It takes away from the efforts of the people who first came here to build this economic corridor.”
City Hall did not respond to a request for comment. But a DOB spokesperson said last month that for the safety of pedestrians walking underneath awnings, signs must be permitted by the city and put up by a licensed professional.
Espinal said the city has largely dropped that argument against the legislation, which was a primary point of opposition.
“The reason this bill is moving forward is because they see that there really haven’t been any safety concerns over the years regarding the awnings,” he said.
The Brooklyn councilman added that he had no new information about who was making so many anonymous 311 calls that led to the surge in awning violations. But he did hear a rumor that it was someone who owns one of the sign-hanging companies in the city.
“Someone with a lot of time on their hands to be able to go to all five boroughs and make so many 311 complaints across the board,” he said. “I hope we get to the bottom of it.
“Hopefully, DOB and the city will be more sensitive when they seen an abuse of the 311 system being used against small businesses,” Espinal added.