By Sid E. Walker
(This is the third article in an occasional series on the Open Restaurants / Obstructed Sidewalks program.)
Spring is upon us. And as more and more bars and restaurants, as well as shops and other establishments, vie for your business and each other’s… it has become an ever-more-challenging effort simply to walk down a Village sidewalk.
Tables. Chairs. Planters. Benches. A-frame signs. Velvet ropes for appearance’s sake. Cords of firewood! And even, yes, fan-filled figures with floppy arms seemingly imported from used car lots in the burbs.
It’s marketing by obstruction — much of it by knowing offenders in willful violation of the applicable rules and regulations intended to balance the needs of all parties — and keep the sidewalks, well… w-a-l-k-a-b-l-e.
Hardly the first great battle in NYC history. And this one’s far from over.
Great Battles of NYC
The first, and biggest: The Battle of Brooklyn, August 27, 1776: the largest battle of the Revolutionary War, and a crushing defeat for General Washington and the Continental Army.
The Battle of Five Points, February 6, 1846: the culmination of a gang war between an amalgam of “Nativist” Protestant gangs and a collection of Irish Catholic gangs which took place at then Paradise Square, near current Columbus Park.
The second Battle of Five Points, made famous by Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” more formally known as the NY Draft Riots, July 13-16 1863: spanning four days, originally a protest against the Civil War draft a few days after the battle of Gettysburg – quickly turned into a race riot with over 100 blacks killed and lynched.
Then there’s the most recent Village battle: the Battle for The WestView News itself. Onward…
Note obstacle course, and well under 8-ft clear path exacerbated by planters. Photo Credit: Sid E. Walker
The Rules — Sidewalks
Basically, the Open Restaurants program guidelines allow bars and restaurants to occupy the roadway and/or the sidewalk, subject to a number of simple but oft-ignored stipulations.
The program is self-certifying, meaning that subscribing businesses affirm, or “self-certify” that they are aware of — and will comply with — the requirements, including:
8-ft minimum clear path, subject to a very few exceptions as to what constitutes an “obstruction”.
Note: sidewalk shed framing IS considered an obstruction. Still need 8’ clear path. Commonly ignored.
Note: A muni bus is 8-ft wide. A queen- or king-size bed is not even 7-ft at 6’-8”. To paraphrase Johnny Cochran, “If it don’t fit, you mustn’t sit.”
“Seating and table must be up against the wall of the business or as close as possible.” Commonly ignored.
“Nothing allowed on sidewalk adjacent to the curb” in the “Amenity Zone” reserved for tree pits, parking meters, fire hydrants, etc. Commonly ignored.
A-frame advertising within 3-ft of the building line, roughly the width of an A-frame base itself, and that’s on streets were they’re allowed in the first place. (As per the NYC sidewalk usage guidelines, even prior to the Open Restaurants program.)
No free-floater obstacle course elements out in the middle.
Note curbside tables and A-frame, and mismatch between adjacent establishments. Photo Credit: Sid E. Walker
Reactions When “Reminded”
This author, and a number of others, have approached countless violator establishments and owners, and politely reminded them of the requirements. In all but a handful of cases, said businesses have refused to modify their layouts. Most either feigned ignorance, or blatantly dug in their heels.
Interesting that most all could cite “eight feet” whether or not they complied after considering obstructions, but not the adjacent “against the wall… or as close as possible” language, or what actually constitutes an allowed obstruction. Selective self-interested reading.
Then there’s the disingenuous “thank you for your feedback”… with zero subsequent layout change. Ah… hospitality industry training at its best. It’s enough to make this author want to call 911 rather than 311.
In more than a few cases, self-described “managers” have said they are not authorized to change the layouts set by higher-ups, and in a few other cases, managers have simply hidden, literally, and refused to engage in conversation.
Not naming names, but… this includes one watering/feeding hole whose seating blocks so much of the sidewalk that pedestrians are forced into the street, and another high-end place with TWO oversize roadway setups AND sidewalk tables on a narrow residential sidewalk less than 10-ft wide in the first place. Then there’s the one with a firewood pile making a virtual cul-de-sac out of a choked down table layout on both inner and outer parts of a narrow sidestreet sidewalk.
Enforcement and Differential Preference
Needless to say, enforcement is virtually nil, if not willfully blind.
Long-standing violators are defiant and notorious, with zero concern for pedestrians and zero fear of repercussions, or what their attitudes are doing to efforts to make the Open Restaurant program (gasp) permanent.
Ironically, one earnest DOT inspector told this author months ago that the first two articles in this series were “required reading” in their office. Hard to tell. Moreover, they said the DOT responds primarily to complaints, clearly meaning to imply that inspectors are NOT empowered to write up violators UNLESS there are complaints.
Managers of two different small locally-owned establishments stated that they were forced to remove their modestly small roadway seating because they could not afford the fines or the compliance requirements, but that the bigger “restaurant-group” type players just pay up and carry on.
Further, a good number of establishments have oversize roadway setups, or they are illegally fully enclosed. There is a size limit: 400 square feet, nominally 50-ft long for an 8-ft wide setup. Roadway enclosures are supposed to have “at least two sides open for airflow.” Not fully enclosed, some even with split AC units.
The guidelines do not allow for quasi-permanent on-sidewalk shanty structures whatsoever, but there are plenty. Some even encroach on the 8-foot clear path rule. Why? Why? Why? Doesn’t anyone at DOT, DOB, or even FDNY own a chainsaw? I say FDNY because some of these sidewalk enclosures are locked off-hours and/or actually block fire escape drop ladders. Further, this taking of the public space is in some cases quite egregious, and borderlines on outright theft of public property — expansion of the building’s footprint — tax-free to boot. A few even have “outdoor” seating outboard of the expanded “indoor” footprint. New York chutzpah, with table service.
As a side note, and worthy of another article: residential properties that have built out onto the public right-of-way, via expanded stairs, planters, ramps, and stoops. Or have illegal or obsolete legacy curb cuts to claim personal parking spots. Fake driveways into fake garages are evidently a thing.
Notably, the temporary “emergency” Open Restaurant guidelines from spring/summer 2020 do not distinguish between businesses that hung in there through Covid-19 closures — many of which are still struggling to dig out financially if they survived at all — and those establishments that opened more recently. How is THAT fair?
Legislative status, other organizational efforts, briefly
As of this writing, the City Council has not voted on making the program permanent. The council continues to take input – and pressure – from both the bar and restaurant industry and other stakeholders, both for and against making the program permanent.
A group of neighborhood block associations known as CUEUP (Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy) with roots here in the Village have organized to push back. They have released a “blueprint” with recommendations, and have demanded the council hold a public hearing on the matter.
This author would like to see the NYPD Traffic Enforcement Officers tasked with writing up tickets. They are already enforcing DOT rules. So why not?
A Call to Arms, er Feet:
ASK FOR THE MANAGER!
Call 311, or use the 311 app, to file a complaint
Contact your City Council member
Contact the Community Board 2 Traffic & Transportation Committee
Contact and read up on CUEUP (cueupny.com)
Write Letters to the Editor at The WestView News.
Most of all: Don’t spend your money on sidewalk hogs. And let them know why.
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, has helped unsnarl the LGA roadway system, and who would like to see a better-informed discussion of local traffic and transportation issues. His family have been Villagers for three generations.