By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Once upon a time, city residents worked with their city government to protect the quality of life for all: noise ordinances were developed to limit the volume and hours of loud crowds, loud music, and loud work sites; restaurants were required to limit sound pollution with closed windows and doors if there was inside music; sidewalks were required to be swept or washed regularly, and curbsides got regular twice-weekly street-cleaning with machines that scrub gutters; sidewalks were generally reserved for pedestrians, with more accommodations for people with disabilities. Where sidewalk cafes were possible, community boards like ours (CB2) followed careful guidelines to preserve the pedestrian right-of-way, prohibit piped music, and require that furniture be cleared off the sidewalk nightly for cleaning.
In March 2020, all that changed with the COVID pandemic. To provide some measure of street life after businesses were required to close, outdoor services were allowed on an emergency basis. This was a life-line for some businesses, but not enough for many others, as customers stayed home or moved to more rural areas. What occurred during these past 15 months was difficult for all, on various levels.
To make room for “social distancing,” sidewalks, plazas, and entire streets were blocked off for seating and limited traffic. Parking spaces were turned over to nearby hospitality businesses for their private use with structures, previously illegal, built on public property. Now, vermin and refuse find hiding spots under and around these structures, as no street cleaning can occur. All the loud activity once confined to interiors, including loud music, though still technically prohibited, was now loosed on the streets from noon till way past midnight under the windows and bedrooms of desperate residents. Many residents reported to the police, 311, the health department, and the sanitation department, to no avail. The problems continued.
As indoor seating has now returned to restaurants and bars, and the city begins to return to “normal,” one might hope that consideration of quality of life circumstances would also return. But power brokers have other ideas—let’s keep the filthy circus atmosphere going, let’s throw public safety out the window and keep those shacks on our streets, blocking fire department and first-responder trucks. If residents complain publicly about lack of street cleaning, just pour harsh chemicals on the sidewalks, right? No room on sidewalks for pedestrians? Oh, the city will enforce the clearances, even more than we did during the pandemic, they have said at public hearings, since we’ll hire many more compliance staff. Noise keeping you up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning? That’s your problem, not the city’s, sorry.
Mayor de Blasio’s Department of City Planning’s (DCP) solution for these problems is to propose eliminating the zoning that regulates what activities are in our neighborhoods, and that the emergency “open restaurants” become permanent. Instead of allowing the community boards to participate in determining how and where outdoor activities will occur, the city Department of Transportation (DOT) will now be put in charge of our quality of life. How carefully has that been administered by DOT in the past, residents ask?
How did we arrive at this conflict without any community input? In a June 9th blog, Stuart Waldman wrote that the New York City Hospitality Alliance—its board of directors dominated by corporate-run restaurant groups, big-name restaurants financed by LLCs with deep-pocketed investors, and corporations that supply the hospitality industry—fought to limit restaurant workers’ right to sue, paid sick leave, two weeks paid vacation, and the $15 an hour minimum wage. The head of the alliance is Andrew Rigie, who, in May of last year, co-wrote an op-ed with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson entitled “Reopen New York restaurants with a European café sensibility.” Rigie was the chief witness at a city council hearing about a bill, written with the input of the Hospitality Alliance, that would mandate the creation of a permanent Open Restaurants program. Two weeks later, the bill passed 46 to two.
At a CB2 hearing in July, DCP and DOT presented their plans (also on their websites at nyc.gov.) The outrage of residents in attendance was palpable and expressed repeatedly, especially regarding the failure of the city’s presentation to acknowledge any residents’ complaints or offer any solution to the vermin or trash problems, as if they didn’t exist. A building on Bleecker Street was destroyed by fire, and the fire department complained of the difficulty of working around the street shacks. One resident reported that her fire insurance carrier canceled her policy due to the unsafe street conditions caused by street shacks.
Nearly 100 percent of speakers in attendance argued passionately against the proposed plan. They demanded a “sunset date” to end the emergency provisions, not approval of permanent status. Other long-time residents noted that in historic districts, all owners wanting even little changes must apply for certificates of appropriateness. But the street shacks seem to have skipped that step. Why?
DCP and DOT representatives all asked for feedback and claimed they want to learn from past mistakes. Their presentations show that they have not done so. Now, will they actually listen to the community to learn and apply lessons?
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice. He serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, and is also co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of the AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.
“GIVE AN INCH; TAKE A MILE.” Existing and proposed public pathway regulations require that at least eight feet or half the sidewalk width must be clear. A three-feet serving aisle must be provided in addition to that eight-feet width. Obviously, from these few examples in the Village (above), no one is following the rules, or enforcing them. Note that on most of these sidewalks, after subtracting the three-feet serving aisle, light poles, planters, and hydrants, only one to two feet of clear path is left (if people don’t congregate in that space, which they often do). Photos by Brian J Pape, AIA.