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Permanent outdoor dining? Government by fiat — without caution

BY ARTHUR SCHWARTZ | Back in mid-June, with New York City still in lockdown, and with crowds of demonstrators marching down 14th St. and smashing windows, Bill de Blasio stood on the corner of Seventh Ave. and 14th St.  and declared the 14th St. busway pilot project, which was supposed to last 18 months, a “great success,” and he declared the busway “permanent.”

Our neighborhood was still in COVID shock, most people were not going to work, and 14th St. had been deserted since mid-March. No public hearings had been held, no community board sessions had been consulted, no genuine studies had been conducted. But the mayor, standing in front of boarded-up windows, issued a fiat — it’s “permanent.”

Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, who represents the community north of 14th St., wrote to Polly Trottenberg, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, about the lack of community input: “We may all agree that the 14th St. project has worked well. But we and D.O.T. are not all-knowing. Before making the project permanent, the City must recognize that receiving public comment might yield differing views and valuable suggestions.”

Fast-forward four months. The city is struggling to revive. Stores and restaurants are suffering. Restaurants that had not closed are allowed to open up sidewalk cafes, since indoor dining is prohibited. At first, tables were allowed on sidewalks. Then D.O.T. issued temporary rules allowing parking lanes, along the curb, to be turned into spaces for outdoor dining.

Sammy’s Noodle Shop & Grill on Sixth Ave. in the Village did not survive the pandemic. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

Some of our neighborhood restaurants tried to revive. (Too late for Sammy’s Noodle Shop & Grill on Sixth Ave. and Saigon Grill on University Place.) We were all happy to see them back, and to have a chance to get out and sit with a friend or a spouse and eat a restaurant meal. A little reminder of our pre-pandemic lives. Even in early October, when the city allowed indoor dining at 25 percent capacity, most of us chose to sit outside.

The rules, however, were unclear. Tables were on sidewalks, alongside the buildings but also at the curb, as well as in the street. Some tables were 6 feet apart with partitions. Some places, like The White Horse, have people sitting closer together with no mask wearing. Many narrow sidewalks are impassable, especially for the elderly or folks in wheelchairs.

Sitting at a table of a restaurant participating in the city’s Open Restaurants program during the summer. With the colder weather, restaurants have now been erecting enclosures for outdoor dining and have been authorized to use propane heaters, though only on the sidewalk, plus other types of heaters. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

As the weather has gotten cooler, some restaurants have built structures, some with poles and plastic sheeting, some now made out of wood, looking a lot more permanent. Some restaurants started playing music outside. I went to one that had live music on the sidewalk. There were no “permits” per se, no controls on hours and noise levels. No applications for exceptions to zoning resolutions. And now, spaces with plastic enclosures have started using propane heaters as the city lifted a ban on their use in New York City.

So, what does “feel-good” de Blasio and his sidekick Polly Trottenberg do? They declare that outdoor dining of the sort we see around the city will be “permanent.” No rules yet, no regulations, no community board input, no plan to return to normalcy post-pandemic. Not a single request from the city for a community board hearing. (Yes, unless we reelect Trump, there really will be a post-pandemic United States.) “Permanent.”

De Blasio ran his “permanent” idea past community boards in October, and the result was outrage. Folks who live in buildings adjacent to or across the street from outdoor eating establishments screamed. They are glad to tolerate the noise and the crowds during the pandemic in order to keep local eateries alive. But “permanent?”

We live in a community with more restaurants per square foot than any in New York. Pre-pandemic sidewalk cafe and cabaret permits — and liquor licenses — were subjects of great debate at community board meetings; the boards negotiated lots of restrictions addressed to numbers of tables, hours of operation and noise levels. But Polly Trottenberg (who I like to compare to Robert Moses in her zeal to ignore local community input) and de Blasio want to ignore all that. And then, despite the outcry, our city councilmember, Corey Johnson, as speaker, asked the City Council to vote to approve the move. And they did. No public process at all!

Is this the last we will hear about this? I don’t think so. Block associations are up in arms and are planning a counter-movement. Last week 35 block association leaders in the South Village and Soho met to discuss a political campaign and possible litigation. Stay tuned!

Schwartz is the Democratic district leader for Greenwich Village and a candidate for City Council in Council District 3.

9 Comments

  1. JackDog JackDog November 2, 2020

    These are the same “visionaries” that promote bikes — without a responsible bike culture. They bleat about going green and create world-class congestion. Create a permanent picnic and reduce parking on city streets. They intend to shut down East River Park — alienate parkland while, yes, advocating “going green.”

    Robert Moses had his own logistical and ego issues. However the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. If you don’t want to recreate the problem that led to the swelling of the NY State prison population —the Rockefeller Drug Laws — take the handcuffs off the judges. Cash bail on a case-by-case basis makes sense.

    It is said, “If you’re not a liberal when you are young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not conservative when you are older, you don’t have a brain.” The city needs to elect a mayor who will lead in a responsible and consistent manner. The pandemic is not the only reason people are leaving the Big Apple.

  2. Georgette Fleischer Georgette Fleischer November 2, 2020

    Mayor Enormous Changes at the Last Minute de Blasio is whipping up a tsunami of wreckage in his wake. In addition to the 14th Street Busway, there is the Chinatown Megajail project, defeated by Neighbors United Below Canal in State Supreme Court (yay!), and there is the rabbit pulled out of the hat of the SoHo/NoHo rezoning project. I’m reminded of the famous essay by Walter Benjamin, in which the Angel in a Klee painting becomes the “angel of history”:

    His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

    So much for the progressive Mayor Bill.

    His latest, opportunistically using the COVID pandemic to hustle in an emergency measure that he then makes “permanent” by despotic fiat, will likely be his crowning achievement. What would its legacy be? No public comment; no community board input (move so quickly the measure is passed before the public knows what hit them). Send Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg to the p.r. rescue: she of see no evil, hear no evil will claim not to know how many 311 complaints were made, but contradictorily and in typically self-congratulatory fashion, will attribute there being fewer complaints than anticipated to “New Yorkers,” whom she will thank for their “toleran[ce]” in “going with the flow.”

    Some of us have too much respect for democracy and public process, and feel too keenly in the midst of a COVID surge that has claimed family and friends the human loss that results when bad authority figures fail to take the legally required hard look at the results of their actions.

    Rewriting the NYC Fire Code to allow untrained restaurateurs to self-certify their handling of 20-pound propane gas-heater tanks — they can dispense with hiring an architect or engineer, and submit handmade drawings on placement! — which can combust, explode and which will fill the air we breathe with carbon monoxide is not something to be tolerated. We will not go with the flow.

    Georgette Fleischer,
    President of Friends of Petrosino Square

  3. Stuart Stuart November 2, 2020

    Did someone die and make de Blasio king?

    As a business owner and an active member of my community, I can attest to the fact that although residents are less than pleased by the new build-outs in the streets, they are true New Yorkers and know that this is the time that we must lend our full support to our local restaurants in any way that we can, including patronizing them and putting up with all of the associated problems the build-outs cause. We are also keenly aware (and supportive) of the many other businesses in our neighborhood that are failing at alarming rates without any such help from the city.

    There is no question when it comes to residents’ support of local business. But we are deeply roiled by the fact that de Blasio has taken it upon himself to issue an edict in pursuit of making these build-outs permanent. Already operators are building just to grab what’s theirs. There have been no environmental impact studies, no consultation with residents who will have to put up with “scenes” right outside their windows, no consultation with the City Council, and none with people like my block association, which has at times had to wage long wars with bad operators so that an average person could live peaceably.

    There seems to have been no due process whatsoever, let alone public inclusion. And, it seems that the idea has simply not been thought through. The bad operators are already violating social distancing, noise and amplified music guidelines and are operating while flagrantly flouting the law. Imagine these places and the legit ones at full capacity. These are businesses designed to make money.

    Since when must the brunt of these operations fall upon the regular Joe who lives street-side on the first or second or third floor? It is just outrageous that de Blasio would throw hardworking New Yorkers under the bus to…appease the restaurant (and real estate) industry. And, it is unacceptable.

    WRITE THE MAYOR: LET HIM KNOW “NO ON PERMANENT OUTDOOR DINING”

  4. Jane Doe Jane Doe November 2, 2020

    ???? Did Mr. Schwartz miss the part where THE CITY COUNCIL voted 46-2 to CONTINUE outdoor dining. Not exactly some authoritarian “fiat.” Last I checked, ELECTED City Council members are supposed to do what the majority of their citizens want.

    It was Mr. Schwartz using his years of high-priced NIMBY legal maneuvers who tried to keep the 14th St. bus the slowest in NYC so he and his wealthy neighbors could avoid the horrors of traffic on their streets — the bus-riding public that spent 20 minutes going from 6th Ave. to 4th Ave. be damned.

    I can’t wait to see how the issues play out with Mr. Schwartz’s campaign to replace Corey Johnson, who has done a terrific job and supported the busway along with the vast majority of his constituents.

    • Georgette Fleischer Georgette Fleischer November 3, 2020

      “Jane Doe” is not well informed.
      The Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing of the NYC Council voted on October 13, 2020 four yes, including Chair Andrew Cohen, who nevertheless raised serious caveats about turning the outside into the inside with the new “permanent” outdoor structures (an issue raised yesterday in generally pro-development Curbed https://www.curbed.com/2020/11/nyc-outdoor-dining-winter-open-restaurants-cabins.html), two no: Karen Koslowitz and Kalman Yeger, and one abstain, Peter Koo. Four to two with one abstention is not a strong endorsement; it barely passed at committee.
      As usual, City Councilmembers with few exceptions deferred at the full Council to the sponsoring Councilmembers, Antonio Reynoso and Ydanis Rodriguez, and Speaker Corey Johnson, who promoted this measure.
      But that does not mean City Councilmembers were without serious reservations. For instance, both Peter Koo (Flushing) and Margaret Chin (Lower Manhattan) raised substantial concerns about the experience of residents “living on top” of outdoor eateries. Those concerns were swept aside, along with many others, in the rush to push through legislation that had no public comment, let alone review, process, and no input from the 59 community boards in the City of New York but one: Board 4-Manhattan, in Speaker Johnson’s District.
      As Stuart points out above, there was no environmental impact analysis, which is a grievous and actionable omission.

    • Jane Doe Jane Doe November 3, 2020

      20 minutes aint bad crossing town

  5. jane doe jane doe November 3, 2020

    Not crossing Town , Crossing TWO BLOCKS as anyone who took the pre busway 14 would know

  6. jane doe jane doe November 3, 2020

    Sorry I am perfectly well informed. You can parse it out anyway you want, the FULL CITY COUNCIL voted 46-2 to extend indoor dining for a year, which makes Mr. Schwartz’s claim that it was some authoritarian action by de Blasio (who I dislike as much as most of you) as absurd as his idea to make bus fare free because, as we all know, the MTA can easily afford it, they are brimming with cash.

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