BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Will the shed hit the fan again?
The Open Restaurants public-review tour is rolling on, and if this past Tuesday’s hearing at Community Board 3 is any indication, it’s going to be more heated and rowdy than Ozzy Osbourne’s “Diary of a Madman Tour” in ’82.
The hearing for C.B. 3, which covers the East Village and Lower East Side, was a sustained angry venting session, as residents of one of the most alcohol-saturated communities in the country cried that the open-dining program has wrecked their quality of life.
The city wants to make the pandemic-inspired Open Restaurants permanent and is presenting a text amendment to the Zoning Resolution to allow this. Specifically, zoning restrictions applying to sidewalk cafes — which are currently suspended due to the pandemic — would be removed.
The next stop on the rolling review tour will be Monday at Community Board 2, which includes Greenwich Village, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Meatpacking District. Reps from the Department of City Planning and Department of Transportation will be on hand to make the presentation — and, no doubt, will come prepared for blowback from residents from yet another outdoor dining-inundated community.
The in-person meeting will be at Middle School 297, at 75 Morton St., in the cafeteria, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Registration is required so that the board can try to ensure that there are enough seats for everyone. The proceedings will also be livestreamed on the C.B. 2 Web site.
To strategize for Monday’s critical session, concerned Villagers held a Zoom on Thursday. Leading it were Micki McGee of South Village Neighbors and Leslie Clark of West Village Residents Association. Assemblymember Deborah Glick also attended.
David Gruber, a former chairperson of C.B. 2, expressed the view of everyone on the call when he said Open Restaurants cannot be allowed to be permanent.
“This needs to be in the legislation — that there is a sunset [to the program],” he said.
Opponents charge there has been zero enforcement on the Open Restaurants program so far, and that there would be none moving forward if the plan is made permanent.
“It’s not going to happen,” Gruber said. “There’s no enforcement. It’s a large, complex city. All of the politicians that were running for office, none came out against this.”
Gruber said he had spoken with the Democratic nominee for Manhattan borough president, Mark Levine, who told him people in Washington Heights, in his current City Council district, like Open Restaurants.
“This is not good for our community,” Gruber told the Zoom session. “If you want to have it in your community, fine.”
Similarly, others said Open Restaurants cannot be a “one size fits all” program since places like Greenwich Village, with its small streets and low buildings, are impacted especially heavily by street life.
“The community board was bypassed on this,” Gruber recalled of Open Restaurants’ launch a year ago. “There was no notice, no hearings.”
The former board chairperson counselled neighbors not to let their emotions boil over Monday, not to unleash their fury and anguish the way C.B. 3 residents had done at their own meeting.
“I think it can’t be out of hand, it can’t be disruptive,” he advised.
Members were encouraged to testify about their personal experiences, to let the city officials know how seriously the program has been impacting their quality of life.
At the same time, the group has a number of talking points they plan to stress, as well, including that residential neighborhoods “need to maintain their basic quality of life”; that Open Restaurants is “a giveaway of public land” to one industry, without any fees; that the program “privileges” one industry to the detriment of others since landlords can now demand higher rents from restaurants due to the additional outdoor seating; that there must be a mitigation plan for music and noise — and also rats — in connection with the outdoor sheds; and that adequate sidewalk space for pedestrians must be preserved and legislatively mandated.
Locals on the call bemoaned how the collection of random ramshackle dining structures has affected the area visually, as well.
“We’re called the most beautiful neighborhood in New York and they want to change that,” one said. A homeowner, she added that, over all, there is real concern about the impact on property values, and that this is not what people signed up for when they bought in the neighborhood.
“Property values are dropping,” she said, “because people now suddenly find they are living on a commercial street.”
This is a particular issue on side streets where there are grandfathered, or preexisting, bar and restaurant uses that would not normally be allowed under current zoning.
She also said the neighborhood has become less safe due to Open Restaurants and that she is seeing more crime and vandalism as a result in her area.
“It’s just gotten to be a different neighborhood,” the woman said. Over the years, the Village was always listed as a top tourist attraction, she noted, adding, “The reason it was a draw was because it was quiet and European.”
People on the call said they supported the outdoor dining plan initially, during the depths of the pandemic, but that now keeping it forever is a totally different matter.
McGee pointed out that, while the city is trying to say it is not technically changing the zoning, the proposed change is far-reaching and would have major consequences, so basically is akin to nothing short of a zoning change.
“The people presenting [at the meeting] are going to say, ‘We are not changing the zoning.’ They are going to say it’s nothing,” she said. “They are changing the zoning stealthily. The mechanism they have chosen to do this is incredibly clever. You’ve got to give them credit. By removing all the zoning on cafes, they are doing blanket rezoning. We have to call out that malarkey.”
Added Clark, “They’re not wiping out the zoning, but the zoning restrictions.”
Clark said the de Blasio administration planners who are driving the Open Restaurants initiative clearly want to change things in a major way in one fell swoop. Yet, she said, their effort simply is not grounded in commonsense reality, in terms of what makes for livable residential neighborhoods. In short, she said, the program’s architects do not understand the consequences of what they are doing.
“These are young planners who come out of urban planning programs who see this as a way [to make a sweeping change],” she said. “But these rules were there for a reason. This plan simply ignores the history and experience of communities.”