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Don’t give away the streets to landlords and restaurants

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | I love sidewalk cafes. I especially like the nice ones that have comfy chairs and plantings that separate me from people passing by while I eat.

I also like streets, and while some of the new food sheds on the streets are great, giving the roadway (and sidewalks) away permanently to restaurants is a truly bad idea.

I don’t have a car: This is not about parking. Rather, I have long imagined other uses for our streets: outdoor classrooms, plazas, play streets, shaded boulevards with widened sidewalks, entirely new parks and parklets, dog runs, big tents for civic meetings for community organizations, delivery distribution points, and streets given over to holiday markets, pushcarts, flea markets, smorgasbords and farmers markets.

But the new proposal to permanently give away all the sidewalks and roadways in Manhattan as of right to the restaurant industry — and the landlords who own those retail spaces — is deeply flawed. There is no way to say that this is not a radical privatization of the public realm. I would support the sidewalk part of the proposal if the city had any regulatory capacity and if we were charging serious rent for the space, but the roadway part of the giveaway is a terrible idea. Here’s why and how to fix it:

• First, the restaurant industry is not still the victim portrayed in the media last year: They are getting massive federal bailouts. The latest federal bailout fund is $60 billion, on top of the bailout they already got. We don’t need to feel guilty.

An outdoor dining shed on First Ave. in the East Village. (Photo by The Village Sun)

• The city’s Department of Transportation is proposing to give restaurants (and the landlords) big chunks of the sidewalk and the roadway for trivial license fees that currently top out at $750, plus a $1,500 security deposit. This is not the same as charging rent. But why not charge rent to a private business that uses our public realm to make private profits? We should not be giving our assets away and losing the economic value of this space for the public budget. Rent is not unheard of for sidewalk space. D.O.T. charged one Christmas tree vendor $56,000 a month for sidewalk space in Soho. So why not charge restaurants?

Before this proposal goes any further, we need a financial study on the value of this space and how much it is worth. If the city does not capture the value of sidewalk space in rents, then private landlords will surely capture the value by charging higher rents to the restaurants. I can imagine the landlord lobby already rubbing their hands together in greedy anticipation. Many of them will double their square footage by taking over the public space.

• D.O.T. should not be the regulatory agency for sidewalk cafes. They are traffic engineers and have no idea how to do this right. Community boards ought to be the regulatory agency on the well-known governmental principle of “subsidiarity”: The lowest agency with the most knowledge should manage things.

• D.O.T. has taken a massive deregulatory approach here rather than a thoughtful one: trivial permit fees, generous “waivers” for violating the rules, free rent, ignoring the service lane requirement for outdoor cafes, no design review, warnings instead of fines and slow-walking community complaints on issues related to noise, overcrowded sidewalks, trash, rats and abandoned sheds. Wrong approach! It treats the residents of the neighborhood and other users of the sidewalk as irrelevant.

• D.O.T. has not figured out a procedural solution to the noise, trash and overcrowding problems that already exist. Imposing fines would be better than a slap on the wrist, but can they collect the fines? The Department of Buildings is famous for not collecting $1.5 billion in outstanding fines. How would D.O.T. do any better?

Habitually despotic D.O.T. has not given neighborhoods the chance to do their own strategic planning for their own streets. Why not redesign the process so we can do this? There is so much talk of community planning in the City Council: It could start with the streets.

So, lots of questions: Which streets do we want to make pedestrian? Where do we want our farmers markets? Where can we have parklets and street seats? What if we want to turn an entire side street over to a park-like purpose? Where to put some carshares? Where can we put permanent play streets — like in front of preschools? What about bike racks for people who own their bikes put onto the street? Where can community organizations put up a tent on the street for civic and nonprofit meetings? Where can we make a dog run in a street? Where do we want sidewalk cafes to proliferate and where do we want to keep them in check? Where do we want to put public art instead of D.O.T. deciding for us? What recourse should communities have in cases like that of Felix on West Broadway, where the noise, chaos and drinking is horrific — a problem that could happen anywhere? D.O.T. has no substantive answers to any of these questions.

My suggestion: The sidewalk and road plans should arise out of real neighborhood planning, not from one-size-fits all impositions of a despotic D.O.T. in a plan that will ultimately benefit the landlords who own the spaces that restaurants lease.

Finally, rather than privatize our roadways for restaurants, let’s physically widen the sidewalk. This would rectify the disastrous street-widening program D.O.T. undertook in the 1950s and ’60s. Doing this would also eliminate most of the road-sharing issues that vex the current proposal.

Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC.

20 Comments

  1. Lora Tenenbaum Lora Tenenbaum July 12, 2021

    Lynn Ellsworth is spot-on.

    The Department of Transportation is currently putting together its 5-year Streets Plan. This is the web site: https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/about/nyc-streets-plan.shtml

    You can fill in their Survey.

    Tomorrow, July 13, they are doing their Community Workshop via Zoom, and you can sign in to participate on that page

  2. elizabeth gaynor elizabeth gaynor July 12, 2021

    Brilliant! Let’s hear it for some thoughtful city planning that benefits all residents, not just commercial interests. Many problems have arisen from unregulated restaurant sheds, including the one next to my building on 1st Ave., which overbuilt its shed, spreads tables in front of neighboring storefronts, blasted music in the past, blocks Con Ed work to install cables under the sidewalk, and causes adjacent garbage and litter pileups.

  3. Ann McDermott Ann McDermott July 12, 2021

    Here, here!! Down the block from me, the bar on the corner has literally now taken the ENTIRE corner, the front, the side street and the actual street. Which was necessary last year when we couldn’t go inside, but now it’s just a nuisance. Plus there’s a lovely, refined restaurant right next door, and this bar with its Saturday music on the street and gigantic crowds is killing their business! I’m totally with you on this!

  4. redbike redbike July 12, 2021

    Responding briskly to a desperate situation — trying to operate restaurants during the plague year — the sheds may have been a useful stopgap. As good long-term policy, I’ve seen no implementation — anywhere — that’s a four-season success. Many instances have been failures, as in: out of business.

    The “desperate situation” is — mercifully — behind us. It’s history. So, too, should be the crap shacks.

    Can anyone point to an exemplary restaurant crap shack that’s good for the restaurateur and good for the neighborhood? I’d like to see it. Perhaps it’s possible to generalize from individual successes (if they exist) to broad public policy. And that’s what’s lacking: good coherent public policy.

    I’m not advocating for restoring on-street parking, but if your only alternative to on-street parking is crap shacks, go back to the drawing board. Private crap shacks are as much a blight on public space as private parking.

  5. S. Farriss S. Farriss July 12, 2021

    Lynn has written the most thoughtful piece I’ve seen so far on this issue. I agree with her on this point: Restaurants struggled mightily for the last year, but no more than other service and retail establishments. Why are we letting this one industry (arguably two, if you count the knock-on effect to real estate owners and developers) dominate our future “livable” streets?

    I think the transfer of the city’s sidewalk cafe oversight and violation enforcement from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to the Department of Transportation is a cynical maneuver by the current administration to squash community input by taking away any tools we currently have to create more livable neighborhoods.

    I also agree with Ellsworth that “D.O.T. should not be the regulatory agency for sidewalk cafes.” D.O.T. did not remedy clear-path violations, overbuilding of street sheds or the pre-vaccine completely enclosed street sheds when they were prohibited over the last year. Why should we believe they will suddenly get serious about enforcement? They will not.

    • Born &Bred New Yorker. Born &Bred New Yorker. July 24, 2021

      Fact is many bars & restaurants did not get any PPP loan. This after applying for it. Most of that money went chain stores and fancy restaurants that the average Joe could never afford to eat at. I have lived here for over 40 yrs & know of lots of bars & restaurants that are still in the red. Their rent was not forgiven. They still owe the rent from lockdown. A year from now with no future lockdowns would be the time to address the outside shacks, not now.

  6. Seth Seth July 12, 2021

    There really needs to be more attention to this. I’m sick and tired of not being able to walk down a sidewalk without feeling like I’m going down the middle of someone’s dining room. I don’t want to watch people eat. Nor do poor people want to see a public display of conspicuous consumption. Also, many of the sheds seem very unsanitary. And now the city wants to make some areas 24/7 entertainment zones! I hope the next administration has more common sense than the current one. I like Parisian-style sidewalk cafes where it’s appropriate, but this is not that. I liked the city much better the way it was before, without electric bikes and restaurant shantytowns.

    • Terry Katz Terry Katz August 2, 2021

      I agree.

  7. Roger M Roger M July 13, 2021

    Too many restaurants take up too much space with these — particularly when they are usurping both sidewalk and street space. Constantly squeezing through mask-less diners and other pedestrians is essentially like walking an endless gauntlet. Even before Covid, too many sidewalk cafes were abused public space. But at least then one could get by walking in the street. Now that’s blocked as well.

  8. Diem H Boyd Diem H Boyd July 13, 2021

    What Lynn said. 100%!

  9. EV Guy EV Guy July 14, 2021

    Double their square footage? Check out Cafeteria in Chelsea. They’ve quadrupled it. A perfect example of the hospitality industry. They’re piggish, and will push and take and impose upon their neighbors whenever and wherever they can.

  10. Matt H Matt H July 14, 2021

    Nah, this is a terrible take.

  11. John John July 14, 2021

    What about those of us still afraid to dine indoors, especially due to Delta? Many of us greatly prefer dining outdoors and it’s our only way to support restaurants. I haven’t heard anything regarding those who enjoy outdoor dining… why aren’t those points included?

  12. John John July 14, 2021

    Also, Covid isn’t over. To say “well they are getting 60 billion in funding… they are not victims” is crazy. They don’t want to survive off handouts… they want to survive by generating revenue. And we’re giving them an opportunity to expand their customer base and generate revenue.

    What if Covid comes back so bad we have to restrict indoor dining? What do we tell the restaurant owners… “Don’t worry, you’ll get another bailout”?

    If we give the parking spaces back to cars, all those other initiatives… “dog run in the street”… “outdoor tent for community associations”… will never come. The car lobby will fight furiously to never give up a parking space again.

  13. Jane doe Jane doe July 15, 2021

    I think everyone has forgotten that a year of no revenue for buisness means debt of rent that landlords were able to still ask for full rent. And how about utilities they had to pay and everything else that didn’t go away? If they received a grant they have to hope it covers the debt and try to stay open. Everyone says let’s help eachother out, but no one looks at the bigger picture of how to coincide with everyone. I guess all the closed businesses is something people would rather see. If not, what is the solution instead of fines because we feel people are getting slapped on the wrist? Speak to someone that has gone through it and get an opinion.

  14. Woody Guthrie Woody Guthrie July 15, 2021

    “But why not charge rent to a private business that uses our public realm to make private profits?”

    There are over 2 million FREE car storage spaces in NYC. Why not charge for those?

  15. Dianne Mendez Dianne Mendez July 16, 2021

    Street/sidewalk dining/drinking establishments are dangerous. They impede sidewalks, bike lanes and emergency vehicle access. They also afflict nearby residents with noise and trash. They should NOT now or ever become permanent!

  16. Alan Flacks Alan Flacks July 24, 2021

    1. The City’s Dept. of Buildings should have an inspection task force to at least cursorily check the construction worthiness of these buildings in the street.
    2. Will these sheds in the street interfere with the City Sanitation and private carter garbage pick-ups?
    3. Why haven’t we heard from the motorists who have been displaced? Or the A.A.A?
    4. How does this affect automobile parking for disabled drivers?
    5. Will these sheds in the street lanes contribute to double parking? Or interfere with truck deliveries?
    6. How will this affect the Fire Department if they can’t get as close to a building as before? Would it mean that fire ladders and “tower” hose firetrucks can’t get up to high floors? Or delayed response time on arrival to lay hose (connect to a fire hydrant)?
    7. Will the restaurants ensure clean streets and sidewalks?

    • JS JS July 25, 2021

      What about the proliferation of rats that are attracted to the mounds of garbage these outdoor dining sheds produce?

  17. Terry Katz Terry Katz August 2, 2021

    Proper open-to-the-sky cafes would have been a nice use of former parking spaces. However, the present curbside shacks wall-in the sidewalk. Now you have to walk in the middel of the street to get any sense that you are outside. Proper open-to-sky cafes would be great, but today’s curbside shacks should be removed.

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