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Photo courtesy of Koo's office
City Councilmen Rafael Espinal and Peter Koo rally with local businesses at Union Street -- the once vibrant commercial strip in Flushing now barren due to sign penalties.

Councilmen Rafael Espinal and Peter Koo joined merchants in the Asian American Federation’s Union Street Small Business Program in Flushing Tuesday afternoon to rally in support of the Awnings Act — legislation that would ease the punitive burden on small businesses in response to a recent citywide blitz of violations for improper signs and awnings.

Although the recent spate of sign violations imposed by the NYC Department of Buildings has affected businesses throughout the city, there is stark visual evidence of its impact on Flushing’s Union Street, where Koo and Espinal rallied with supporters Jan. 8.

“This law was made 60 years ago, and it’s absurd that there are only 20 to 30 people who are licensed to hang signs. Meanwhile, there are over 200,000 small businesses in NYC,” said Ikhwan Rim, president of the Union Street Small Business Association. “Some small business owners are actually closing their stores and loaning money to pay off their penalty.”

After receiving thousands of dollars in fines, dozens of businesses on Union Street were forced to remove their signs, turning the once vibrant commercial corridor in Flushing into a barren strip of exposed brick and cement storefronts.

Union Street before and after The Department of Buildings fines for improper signage.

“The enforcement blitz on mom-and-pop stores throughout our city, particularly here in Flushing, smacks of a one-sided gotcha game played by the city of New York,” Koo said. “The Awnings Act looks to tip the scales back into balance and give our small businesses a fair chance to comply with the law.”

Espinal is the primary sponsor of the Awnings Act; Koo is co-sponsoring the legislation along with fellow Queens Councilman Robert Holden, Bronx Councilman Mark Gjonaj and Brooklyn Councilmen Justin Brannan, Carlos Menchaca and Kalman Yeger.

The legislation seeks to provide immediate relief for small businesses implementing a two-year moratorium on the DOB’s ability to issue any fines/violations relating to business signs; and education and outreach where the DOB, DCP and SBS must develop an education program for small businesses covering accessory signs, regulations and how to bring non-compliant signs into compliance.

Additionally, the legislation would create a task force — comprised of small business owners, chambers of commerce from each borough, union rep, licensed sign hanger and numerous city agencies (the Departments of Buildings, City Planning, Citywide Administrative Services and Small Business Services, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission) — to investigate predatory practices that might explain the concentration of violations in certain areas and a strategy for reform.

The task force will also analyze an outreach strategy to make sure all businesses are better informed about regulations and how to avoid fines before the moratorium is lifted. Within 12 months, the task force must complete an evaluation of the relevance and appropriateness of current regulatory practices and evaluate sign hanging qualifications and if they should be changed.

According to Espinal, the legislation has been about “delivering relief to small businesses.”

Walk up Fulton Street in my district, or here in Flushing, and you can see first-hand the toll that this enforcement blitz has taken on our mom-and-pop shops and family-owned restaurants,” said Espinal. “The bill I am sponsoring will put a stop to that, and ensure we are working with small businesses, rather than unfairly penalizing them for laws that most weren’t even aware of.”

Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, thanked Koo and Espinal for proposing a strong Awnings Act that will help 100-plus merchants that the Asian American Federation is working with on Union Street to address the signage issue.

Yoo requested that the DOB provide in-language instructions and forms for signage permits in the mandated languages, since many small business owners do not speak English well enough to understand permit requirements and are penalized as a result.

“The city must do a better job in educating ALL small business owners, especially as Asian small businesses are critical to the city’s economy,” said Yoo.

The Awnings Act legislation was slated to get a vote during the Jan. 9 City Council stated meeting at City Hall. Results of that vote will be posted when available; if passed, the bill will be sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio for his signature.

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