Volume 20, Number 45 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 23 - 29, 2011
Pop-up cafes stir debate
BY Aline Reynolds
A program for a new type of seasonal outdoor cafe is getting mixed reviews in Soho and Greenwich Village.
The New York City Department of Transportation is launching a pilot program of pop-up cafes, curbside seating and planting spaces financed by NYC businesses, after a successful trial cafe in the Financial District last summer. They are modeled after what are known as “parklets” in San Francisco, as well as outdoor cafes found in Nova Scotia and Florence, Italy.
“By offering greenery and temporary seating, they are especially beneficial to streets and neighborhoods that may lack trees or open space,” according to a D.O.T. hand-out describing the program. They can also help alleviate sidewalk congestion by carving out space for pedestrians to rest, read or chatter with friends.
The cafes, estimated to cost in the ballpark of $10,000, will be open from May 1st to October 15th this and next year. Smoking and alcohol are prohibited in the designated areas, and, while the six-foot-wide wooden platforms are set up along the frontages of the restaurants that sponsor them, they are meant for the public at large.
Pop-up cafes are ideal resting spots for cramped neighborhoods such as SoHo, according to Ian Dutton, one of several residents who like the idea. “This is mainly a way to create some public space where there isn’t a lot of space,” he said.
“We’ve got room for 50 cars to park on our block, but we don’t have room for one little sidewalk café,” chimed in Dutton’s wife, Shea Hovey, another proponent of the pop-up cafes.
The D.O.T. firmly distinguishes between sidewalks and pop-ups. Residents opposed to the program, however, view them as one in the same. “It’s outdoor dining – let’s call it what it is,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance and co-chair of the Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee. “It’s a commercial use incompatible with residential use.”
Sidewalk cafes, which are widespread throughout District Two, Sweeney noted, are prohibited throughout SoHo due to the neighborhood’s manufacturing zoning laws.
The spirit of the ban is to outlaw this type of commercial outdoor entertainment venues, according to Sigrid Burton, a member of the C.B. 2 Traffic and Transportation Committee.
Sweeney, Burton and dozens of residents from SoHo, NoHo, Little Italy and Greenwich Village appeared at last week’s committee meeting to demonstrate their resistance to the program.
Doris Diether, a longtime C.B. 2 member who co-chairs the Landmarks Committee, called the idea “ridiculous.”
“It’s really not going to be a great place to sit and eat,” she said. The cafes along MacDougal Street are extraneous, she and others believe, due to their proximity to Washington Square Park.
Crosby Street, meanwhile, is too narrow to accommodate outdoor seating; and fifth avenue’s traffic lanes are packed with tour buses, causing a danger for public seating that juts out into the street.
Regarding safety, Diether questioned the visibility of the D.O.T. barriers that separate the streets and cafes. “A car coming down the street isn’t going to expect people sitting on the street,” she said. Café users, Diether added, won’t be pleased with cars whizzing right by them.
Burton and other residents oppose the city’s surrendering of free public space to commercial businesses. If the cafes prove successful, restaurants around the city might start asking for them. “I’d still be concerned about what this means in terms of precedence,” she said.
The area restaurants that have applied for the cafes view them as experiments as much as the D.O.T. does.
“Direct revenue from pop-up cafes is something I’m not quite sure about,” said Vittorio Antonini, owner of La Lanterna, a restaurant and wine bar situated at 129 MacDougal Street.
The restaurant, which has partnered with the neighboring Tea Spot in constructing a 60-foot cafe, is taking a “wait-and-see” approach. “There are pros and cons to doing it, but it’s something I’m willing to do on a trial basis,” said Antonini.
“It’s been made too much of a big issue for what it all is,” said Suzie Lupert, executive director of Housing Works, an anti-homeless advocacy group applying for a café in front of its office on Crosby Street.
“I just want the community to decide and to move on from there.”
Olivier Arizzi, brand marketing manager for Pain Quotidien, hopes to construct a pop-up café equipped with seven tables, four chairs apiece. “The nice weather is coming out, and we just want to provide extra service to all our guests so they can enjoy our products we’re offering outside,” he said.
The chain, Arizzi added, would be willing to hire extra servers to cover the maintenance of the café. The owner hopes they’ll make profits from the extra seating, realizing though that there is no certainty.
“We want to see how it’s doing over one year,” Arizzi said, “and make a decision if we want to repeat it or not.”
D.O.T. Spokesperson Dean Montgomery said that C.B. 2 has the veto power of every restaurant’s application via a letter of approval. “The only way any application is going forward is if the board votes on it,” he assured.
The Traffic and Transportation Committee voted in favor of six out of the even applications, which now await C.B. 2’s overall approval at the full board meeting Thursday evening. Whereas the D.O.T. suggested that they close at midnight and 1 a.m. on weekdays and weekends, respectively, the committee suggested that they close at 9 p.m. in the evenings.
Last August, the D.O.T. launched its first pop-up café on Pearl Street in the Financial District, after Bombay restaurant and FIKA espresso bar approached the city and Downtown Alliance with a request for outdoor public seating.