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Rising Rents, Online Shopping Leave Several Manhattan Storefronts Empty

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – By the looks of things, countless stores in Manhattan are closed for business.

High rents and the ease of online shopping have left even upscale stores empty. Can anything be done to stop the disturbing trend?

Madison Avenue was once considered the mecca of shopping in a city famous for selling the finest brands. But sisters from Morocco, who came to Manhattan for the luxury stores, told CBS2's Jessica Layton not-so-much anymore.

"All of these stores are closed, and those that are open are half empty," said one sister.

"It's kind of sad," another added.

Real estate investor Sal Bescemi pointed out that even on Fifth Avenue there are plenty of vacancies, and on Broadway the homeless rest in the doorways of buildings that are for lease. Signs crying out for someone to take the spaces are seen on block after block, with spray paint on the glass of locked up stores that used to thrive.

"I'm born and raised here and I've never seen this many vacancies," he told Layton. "The landlords are asking too much. That's really what it comes down to."

City Hall has also taken notice of the empty storefronts, with the mayor saying he's considered penalizing landlords who let their properties sit vacant for too long.

"A vacancy fee or a vacancy tax," he proposed. "Because they're looking for some top-dollar rent, but they blight neighborhoods by doing it."

"We think it's short sighted and doesn't necessarily understand what's going on," said John Banks, of the Real Estate Board of New York. "It makes no sense whatsoever for a landlord to keep their properties vacant. Seventy cents on the dollar is better than nothing."

Banks said brick-and-mortar stores are up against increasingly tough city regulations and the convenience of online shopping.

As for those who say landlords purposely leave properties vacant to write off the losses, he said, "There is no benefit to keeping your income low artificially. You don't get the tax break or the tax savings that people want you to believe."

No matter what's to blame for the blight, Bescemi said there's a bottom line to the sad-looking storefronts.

"It looks like it's not open for business," he said.

And that's not a good look for New York.

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