Volume 20, Number 47 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 6 - April 12, 2011
Pop-up cafes get hammered down by unwilling board
By Lincoln Anderson
Five out of six applications for sidewalk pop-up cafes in Community Board 2 got shot down at last week’s full-board meeting.
Only Local, a tiny, 10-foot-wide coffee shop with an intensely loyal, “Cheers”-like clientele on Sullivan St. between Prince and Houston Sts., won approval.
Because the pop-up cafes are a pilot program, the local community boards — whose votes are usually only advisory — are being given final say over each application.
Under the program, an approved restaurant, coffee shop or sandwich place will be able to build a regulation-style seating platform that would take the place of one or two parking spots in front of it. The business would be responsible for putting out and taking in tables and chairs for the platform, and maintaining the space. No alcohol or table service would be allowed. The program is planned to run from May through October during the next two years, after which it will be assessed. There is no application fee. A sign must be posted saying the platform is public space and not restricted to patrons of any particular business.
The Department of Transportation was hoping to grant approval for a dozen pop-up cafes around the city. Until earlier this month, there were 17 finalists, with seven of these applications in the C.B. 2 district area (bounded by 14th St., Bowery/Fourth Ave., Canal St. and the Hudson River).
But earlier this month, Soho residents turned out in force at C.B. 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee meeting to protest Salume’s application for a pop-up cafe at 33 West Broadway. The committee subsequently recommended denial for Salume, citing concerns that the small seating platform could cause “additional noise and mayhem in an already oversaturated area.”
The committee recommended approval for the other six applications, though. But Soho residents turned out again, at last week’s full-board meeting, to continue the assault on the pilot pop-ups, calling them inappropriate for their historic neighborhood.
Sean Sweeney, a C.B. 2 member and director of the Soho Alliance, led the charge. He said the pop-ups would, for one, violate Soho’s zoning, which doesn’t allow sidewalk cafes.
“On quiet, residential streets, it’s a problem for noise,” he said. “There’s problems with vermin. These platforms are like boardwalks — what happens if food falls down there? You’ll get rodents and roaches under there. These things are like 80 pounds — no one’s going to lift them up.”
Ian Dutton is a C.B. 2 member and leading proponent of the pop-up plan, whose wife, Shea Hovey, says the seasonal, street-based cafes were her idea.
In a clear swipe at Sweeney, Dutton said a bit sarcastically, “I would like to say, in my 450-square-foot apartment on Sullivan St., we have as much space as a penthouse on Greene St.” (Sweeney lives in a spacious duplex penthouse apartment on Greene St.)
Dutton’s point was that residents like him and his wife, who live in small apartments in the tenement section of Soho — which some call the South Village — value their local coffee shops and cafes as an extension of their cramped apartments. They enjoy using these businesses’ small outdoor benches as places to congregate and mingle with neighbors, and welcome the idea of the sidewalk pop-up cafes as a way of increasing their neighborhood’s limited public space.
However, Doris Diether, a veteran C.B. 2 member, said the street-based cafes would be dangerous and also are redundant, when there are parks nearby where people can easily go to sit or take their snacks or coffee. (Unlike pop-up sidewalk cafes, though, many of the parks don’t have tables, which some might conceivably enjoy using while they eat their sandwiches, have their coffee or read a book, newspaper or iPad.)
Asked why she was repeatedly voting against the pop-up cafe applications, board member Rocio Sanz, co-owner of Tio Pepe restaurant on W. Fourth St., said she and her husband, Jimmy Sanz, dislike all the bicycle lanes that have been added to the streets under D.O.T. Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
William Kelley, director of the Village Alliance business improvement district, said the BID supported the pop-up cafes, since they would bring more people to the neighborhood.
Speaking in support of his application, actor Craig Wilker, owner of the four-year-old Local, said, “My space is a place people like to commune, come together. These streets are our front yards — and we’d like to be able to use them as our front yards, not for parking for someone from New Jersey.” His space is very small, with just five tables and 10 chairs, he noted. “I got a tree planted a year or two ago,” he added.
Wilker said Local collected close to 300 signatures in support of their application in something like just two days. The signers were mostly local people who either live or work in the neighborhood.
Asked about all the opposition to other pop-up applications in the Soho area — such as at Salume and the one that Housing Works Bookshop Cafe was asking for on Crosby St. — Wilker said he thinks it’s just general anger against the ongoing commercialization of Soho, but that it’s now boiling over against the pop-ups.
“These people here are all loft people,” he said of those testifying against the applications. “These people are upset about the crap that Soho was turned into.”
Wilker said he doubted he’d recoup his expenses of constructing the platform, which he figures will cost “three or four grand.” An architect is designing it for him for free, he said. While Local won’t be allowed to provide table service to its outdoor pop-up cafe, patrons can make their orders inside and then take their scones or coffee out to the platform themselves.
Deirdre Pontbriand, who runs Local, at least when she isn’t doing one of her other three part-time jobs, said she’d be happy to do the extra work to put out and take in the chairs and tables from the pop-up cafe and keep it clean, because she loves working at the coffee shop so much.
She didn’t think she’d end up being employed there for three years now, she said, but decided to stay because Local “has fostered such a sense of community — it’s like ‘Cheers.’ It’s like a family, like a hub in the neighborhood.”
Gabriela Arzola, owner of Tea Spot and Wine Spot, and Vittorio Antonini, owner of the adjacent La Lanterna, had teamed up to apply for a pop-up sidewalk cafe outside their businesses on MacDougal St. They said they’d much prefer having outdoor public seating there than trucks using the spot as a loading zone, its current state.
“Very frustrating,” Arzola said after the board’s vote. “We saw it as a good way to give something back to the community.” She said she’d read about the program in an article in the Wall Street Journal, and decided to apply.
Antonini put a positive spin on things, saying Local will now be the test case.
“I think the community will use this as a bellwether,” he said of Local. “They might warm up to the idea.”
In speaking against the Tea Spot/La Lanterna application, Lois Rakoff, a C.B. 2 member, said the pop-up would mainly be used by N.Y.U. students.
“We’re never going to get a chance to sit there because the students are going to be there morning to night,” she charged.
Under C.B. 2’s stipulation, the Local pop-up cafe will have to close by 9 p.m.
As Soho residents and Villagers were decrying the pop-up cafe applications during the meeting’s public session, Terra Leadley, standing in the back of the packed meeting room, told this newspaper she liked the idea. She works at Mudhoney Hair Salon, at 148 Sullivan St., and said she’d use Local’s pop-up cafe.
“I personally think it would be great if there was somewhere outside to eat my lunch instead of the dirty sidewalk,” she said. “As someone who works on the block and spends a lot of time there, I would enjoy being able to sit outside and enjoy it between clients.”