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Open Restaurants or Open Sidewalks, the Follow-up: What’s for Dessert?

By Sid E. Walker

This article is a follow-up to last month’s above-the-fold feature, “Open Restaurants or Open Sidewalks—What’s on The Menu?” If you missed it, the WestView News website has it. (westviewnews.org). In summary, the article described the competition for sidewalk space in the West Village thanks to the city’s “Open Restaurants” program in response to COVID-19 and a good number of issues that have arisen from it. This article is primarily about the reaction to the first one, with a few new angles, dare I say peppered in. Perhaps there will be a third article about the broader topic of how our streets are used, of which the roadway seating is but a part.

Public Response

WestView News received Letters to the Editor (in response to the article and our request for feedback, or simply as a natural matter of course), some of which were forwarded to yours truly if the authors gave permission. (Please see the Letters section).

Rather than print them twice, in summary, all were supportive of the original article. That said, support or opposition to the Open Restaurants program itself varied widely, from love to hate, with some Depp-Heardian love-hate and off-the-menu, anti-car and pro-Europhile sentiment thrown in.

Here are the ideas suggested by others presented a la carte and BYOB style:

  • Detailed analysis of the impact of the Open Restaurants program from a real estate perspective, given bars and restaurants are being allowed to use the public-owned streets and sidewalks free of charge, in some cases “doubling (or more) their footprint.”
  • Reference to “NYC 25×25,” a Transportation Alternatives proposal backed by Mayor Adams to “repurpose 25% of its street space by 2025” into many forms of non-automobile use. 2035 would be optimistic for such an undertaking simply from a construction point-of-view.
  • Suggestion to participate in the NYPD 6th Precinct’s monthly Community Council Zoom meetings. (The last one was on Wednesday, May 25, with registration required a few days in advance.)
  • As COVID-19 restrictions are no longer in effect, the need for the program is no longer present. Further, a few enclosures have AC and heating, so what’s the diff? And pointedly, “…Mayor Adams is removing homeless people off of the streets and removing their sleeping bags and other items and yet he allows these dining shacks to exist.”
  • New York City “generously” offered public space to restaurants to assist during the pandemic to this “happy” (at the time) resident, but now? The program should “not be made permanent,” and “how can open restaurants be stopped?”
  • Lingering. Customers. Waiters. Customers waiting for tables. Making the pedestrian feel like the problem. (The two worst offenders were cited by name, yours truly totally in concurrence. But we’re trying to keep this about the issue as an example that many are guilty of, or else my list would be in the double-digits. More on that below.) Kicker: “I see dead rats in the daytime in those sheds because no one cleans them. It’s disgusting!”
  • One contributor who detailed numerous problems (e.g., “rotting garbage” and “dog urine”) with the “benches/barriers/planters,” and the “egregious robbing of parking spots” that is unfair to those local residents now forced to pay $600-per-month (after-tax I might add) for a garage spot, and who need their cars to work in areas not easily accessible by public transit.
  • Best for last, an assortment of just desserts from the ‘just one idea chef’ to choose from:

o In exchange for public space for private profit, “Let the public use their restrooms;”

o Replace the Zoning Law [i.e., sidewalk café regulation] that has been lifted;

o “Eat-in-the-street operations should be outlawed.”

DOT Response

Yours truly had an enlightening off-the-record conversation with a DOT inspector last week. Yes, I approached someone other than myself armed with a tape measure. (Think floppy lightsaber with built-in sound effects.)

For easy intuition, eight feet—the minimum pedestrian clear path per the Open Restaurant Guidelines—is longer than a king-size mattress measured the long way (96 inches vs. 80 inches). Check my math. Two inches per foot, so to speak. OK, don’t check my math. A king-size mattress with 16” spare at one end. Very roughly, about two sidewalk panels, which are four to five feet each.

As a further aside, “one size fits all” doesn’t work. Sidewalk seating on a narrow Village cross street deserves to be treated differently than on an avenue. If the avenue sidewalk is 20 to 30 feet wide, it was laid out that wide for a reason back when buildings were shorter—and not to then leave eight feet (if you’re lucky) for a heavy pedestrian load.

I asked if the DOT inspector had seen the WestView article and he said his boss made it mandatory office reading. Huzzah!

I then pointed out to my DOT inspector friend a large, shoddy, nearly windowless, plywood shack covering most of the sidewalk—and leaving well less than eight feet—diagonally across from where we were chatting and did I mention it was blocking the fire escape drop ladder? Let me do so now. Done.

I asked, “Why are you measuring over here while that POS* outhouse has been over there for well over a year?” He said, “We got a 311 complaint about this place. We have no 311-complaint record on the place with the shack.” Wow, not even a pretense of fairness. I suggested a letter on Monday, followed by a chainsaw on Friday if necessary. I asked him if that’s how DOT enforcement of parking regulations works (snark). My DOT friend was sympathetic, but said their hands are tied. Good to know that’s how DOT… rolls. DOT is not proactive; they are reactive and inadequately staffed for dealing with this program. Fair has nothing to do with it. File your complaints with 311.

DOT knows how to paint lane lines, and bike-lane lines but how about PEDESTRIAN lane lines on the sidewalks? Not the aerosol canola spray make-your-eggs-yellow kind. I’m talking the thick, goopy, heat-melted-in kind, like a nice hot fudge sundae kind.

*POS=point-of-service. Please. Family paper.

Note: WestView News DID reach out in writing to the DOT for comment, to the individual the inspector referred me to. Crickets, as they say. Rats, if you will.

Bars’ and Restaurants’ Response

Immediately after last month’s article broke, several of the offenders did improve, albeit by inches where feet were needed. Every little bit helps, especially if you have a toddler on a scooter trying to squeeze past a pit bull.

At first, I wasn’t sure if the fact that pedestrians have been able to walk the streets more easily was due to stepped up enforcement, or some establishments’ reaction to the article. Sorry to report, but after talking to the DOT inspector, it’s clear that public humiliation of the deserving does work, but only on those who feel it is in their own interest, as opposed to the public’s interest, or the interest of their own integrity—recall that this is a self-certifying program.

A few bar and restaurant managers were willing to speak with me, some on and some off-the-record. I can’t do them justice. Suffice it to say there too was a huge range. However, first and foremost, all cited the Open Restaurants program as a lifesaver for their businesses and their employees, some of whom organized GoFundMe accounts for their staffs. After that, quite a range:

  • One noted the “Wild West” nature of the utter lack of enforcement.
  • One noted that if their competitors took over the sidewalk, they felt pressure to do so as well.
  • One told me, tearfully, that every table mattered in keeping their business open, and they’d already lost another location. (I returned later with a box of cookies from Patisserie Claude.)
  • One supported open dining if subject to “site analysis”, i.e., only if the sidewalks installs don’t interfere with foot traffic, and only if roadway seating does not take away parking spots. Otherwise, “…the time for the gutter shed is over.”
  • A few seemed to know (and yet ignore) the “8-foot rule,” while seemingly being unaware of the parallel guideline stipulation to keep their tables close to the building frontage, leave space to adjacent businesses, avoid occupying the “neutral zone” next to bike lanes, etc. Fluke is a fish, but flouting is on many a menu.
  • A few told me to MYOB New York style (family paper), or “leave it the city” (knowing full well the city does zero enforcement).
  • One said they would welcome a more structured program, and understood that currently, it was raising the blood pressure of many locals. (See below re CB2.)
  • My favorite measured less than eight feet to their tables for me, ignoring the chairs… and the other tables and chairs curbside – which is always a no-no. (Insert eyeroll emoji here.)
  • Tied for favorite, again with the measuring skills: less than eight feet to their tables, ignoring the multi-year sidewalk shed / construction scaffolding! (Multiple emoji’s work here.)
  • And one noted the intrinsic unfairness of struggling to survive COVID-19 only to now see the same Open Restaurants program that saved them being extended to post-COVID newcomers. And with some of the federal programs expiring, they continue to face imminent economic extinction.
  • Last, one local owner (truly local mom-and-pop, kids-in-GV-public-school local) sold their home to keep their staff employed.

Note: WestView News is recruiting one particularly eloquent establishment manager to write a full-length article. Sadly, too late for this edition. Stay tuned.

Government Response

Community Board 2 held a good number of public hearings on this topic via Zoom. Yours truly attended a few and begged for enforcement of the Guidelines. At one meeting under the previous mayor, a senior administration rep said he was the leader of a “task force” set up to address complaints, given how many city agencies are involved to different degrees: DOT (streets and sidewalks), DOB (permanent, but not temporary, structures), DOH (kitchen inspections, etc.), and even FDNY (roadway widths and heating units). Never heard from him again. Quelle surprise, Chef’s surprise in more ways than one; the city created a program it had—and still has—no idea how to cook properly.

Officially, CB2 opposes making the Open Restaurants program permanent. Resolutions with great supporting detail are available on their website. (cbmanhattan.cityofnewyork.us/cb2. See “RESOLUTION: Manhattan CB2 Permanent Open Restaurants Zoning Text Amendment–September 2021.”)

Per a legal beagle friend in city government speaking only “on background,” the basic issue is this: the Open Restaurants program also suspended the Sidewalk Café licensing process. But the Open Restaurants program itself only got as far as the voluntary compliance self-certifying Guidelines. As a nominally short-term temporary program, it was never codified into law or regulation. So…. the notion that a meter officer or DOT inspector could issue a ticket doesn’t come into play legally. In short, those ignoring the Guidelines aren’t breaking the law. Even the establishment at West 4th and West 10th Streets with a roadway shack in a No Standing zone. Seems you can’t park a moped there, but a full-on dining shed? Go for it.

Note: WestView News did approach Community Board 2 in writing. We were referred to their Resolutions.

Case Studies, a Sprinkling

A notorious avenue bar/restaurant. Permanent sidewalk shack, already a no-no. This author has video of scurrying rodents inside their sidewalk seating area, both before and after the always a no-no platform was removed. Hostess’s reaction when asked to call an exterminator? “Hey, it’s New York.”

Again, West 4th and West 10th. No standing zone. Too close to a tight corner, unless they have roadway seating. Neighbors at their wits’ end.

Many abandoned planters of since-shuttered establishments, still on sidewalk and/or roadway.

Best for last, but this list could go on: the featured cover photo last month? I could have taken the same shot at deadline one month later.

What’s Next?

The court system: Back in October 2021, a group of New Yorkers, several of whom live in the West Village, filed a lawsuit to block the Open Restaurants program from becoming permanent. In March 2022, a Supreme Court judge agreed, nullifying the Zoning Text Amendment passed by the City Council, and ordering a SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) environmental review. As I understand but could not confirm, the City is considering an appeal, rather than performing the environmental review they should have before going permanent.

The political system: Call and/or write to your elected representatives at all levels. The Open Restaurant program is a differentiating issue in the upcoming local State Assembly race distinguishing the two candidates: Incumbent Deborah Glick opposes the Open Restaurant program, but her challenger Ryder Kessler supports the program.

The official system: Wear out 311. The website. The app. The phone number. Again, per the DOT rep, that’s what they respond to.

The wallet system: My favorite. Vote with your feet and your purse and let the establishments know, both the ones you are avoiding and the ones you are patronizing. For example, tell them this, “I love you and I still order-in from you, but I will be sitting elsewhere as long as you are obstructing the sidewalk.” Tough love, not tough steaks.

Future topic: Roadway use. Not just Open Restaurants and roadway seating, but more broadly, and not just as in curb-to-curb broadly, or as in my broadening waistline from eating out so often as a respite from COVID-19 and all the all-too-many stressors in America these days.

Support your local bars and restaurants. Tip your waiter, and if you’re not vegan, do try the veal.

As always, feedback is welcome.

 

Sid E. Walker is the pen name (no, really?) of a long-time local village resident, parent, and professional civil engineer, who has been active in local community issues for the past 15 years, and who would like to see bars and restaurants recover from Covid and succeed, while keeping sidewalks passable. His family have been Villagers for three generations.

 

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