By Brian J. Pape, AIA,LEED-AP
In a damning report issued by Council Speaker Cory Johnson’s office in August, the long-standing safety rules for street rights-of-way are routinely violated with no apparent enforcement.
At a time when the mayor’s office and its Department of City Planning (DCP) are pushing to adopt new zoning laws that shift the responsibility of safety and quality of life issues for the Open Restaurants program to the Department of Transportation (DOT), the prospect of allowing bars and restaurants to have permanent outdoor as well as indoor service has created a “wild west” atmosphere of shanty towns on our streets.
The city is required to conduct studies to determine whether a land use action will create adverse affects on the community, known as City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR). The CEQR study of the proposed rezoning provided by the city to date simply makes broadbrush statements of “no adverse affect” concerning safety, sanitation, character of the neighborhood, or quality of life issues. No backup surveys or in-depth studies are provided in the CEQR.
In contrast to the careless attitude of city departments, Speaker Johnson initiated a “Temporary Open Restaurants Program Survey Analysis” that sent interns into the field, walking every street in Johnson’s district 3 below 15th Street, to document actual conditions of the outdoor dining facilities.
Even for residents already exposed to the chaos of conditions, the report revealed shocking data.
93% of all outdoor seating facilities in the surveyed area, out of a total of 352, failed to meet at least one of the applicable street regulations. This area, from Canal Street up to 14th Street, and generally west of Fifth Avenue, has statistically the highest concentration of bar and restaurant licenses of any neighborhood in the entire five-borough city. The survey was conducted in June and July during open business hours of 10am to 7pm, and not on rainy days or night times. No distinction was made between bars, coffee shops, delis and restaurants, so it refers generally to “restaurants” inclusively. Despite these limitations, this survey stands out in a void of data.
To get a glimpse of the severity of the safety violations, the report itemizes DOT Guidelines that have been established for generations, based on necessary precautions to protect the life and welfare of the population, no matter what neighborhood.
“(Do) not place seating or barriers within 15’ of a fire hydrant.” Violating this rule means fire fighters waste valuable time locating and clearing the hydrant to hook up their equipment; lives and property are endangered. Of 70 restaurants surveyed with hydrants in front, 37 of them, or 53%, block them with seating or structures.
“Must leave 8’ clear path for pedestrians.” A clear walkway is necessary for passage of wheelchairs, strollers, walkers, canes, and walking with children; obstructed paths can cause injury. Of 298 surveyed restaurants with sidewalk seating, all but 18% of them failed to comply.
“All items for outdoor dining must be pressed against the wall of the business or as close as possible.” The 2’ along the curb is called an “amenity zone”, reserved for hydrants, kiosks, sign and light poles, bus stops or tree pits. 133 restaurants had seating in the amenity zone.
“Install a platform…to flush height with the curb” or “Provide a ramp for ADA compliance.” If structure floors are not flush with the curb or don’t provide ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ramps, persons with disabilities face dangerous or incapacitating conditions. Of the 220 roadbed facilities, 91 are in violation of this rule (41% of total).
“Roadbed barriers may be placed no more than 8’ from the curb.” The intention is to maintain adequate traffic lanes, and especially the 15’ emergency lane. That 15’ emergency lane is a standard requirement even for temporary street closures for pop-up displays, street fairs, or commercial events. Of the 220 roadbed facilities, 71 extended more than 8’ from curb (32%). Of those 71 beyond 8’, 19 also lack the 15’ emergency lane in the road. Previous reports attest to the danger when fire trucks or first responders cannot maneuver those tight spaces.
“(Do) not place seating or barriers within 8’ of a crosswalk.” This common sense rule allows sightlines for pedestrians and vehicles, to detect danger and avoid injuries. Of the 220 roadbed facilities, 118 extended closer than 8’ from a crosswalk, blocking visibility.
Seating “may be set up in a floating parking lane in front of an approved business.” A buffer between the bike lane and the seating must be provided. Note that many seating areas extend way past the “front of the business” defined by their property lines. There were ten restaurants with seating across bike lanes; very dangerous.
Parking Designations: Commercial Loading Only, No Parking, Alternative Side, No Standing, Bus Stop; there are many restrictions for parking. Of the 220 roadbed facilities surveyed, 37 violated the posted signs (17%).
Recommendations included in the study spoke to obvious corrections, starting with immediate enforcement of the existing regulations, and eliminating the self-certify method of approvals for outdoor seating. Re-establishing meaningful public review of applications, such as the previous process before the community boards, is an essential part of enforcing the regulations. The DOT has proven to be incapable of enforcement, so why give them more responsibility?
Next steps were confirmed by many written comments from the public at a recent CB2 meeting, including that the survey should include night-time quality of life report in collaboration with DEP, NYPD, SLA, and FDNY, to address the terrible noise, infestation, pollution, and historic district violations that are existing in our neighborhood, then “sunset” the shed structures, and return to community oversight over neighborhood matters.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “Green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and is a journalist, especially on architecture subjects.