by Mark Berkey-Gerard
May 19, 2003
On a warm evening, patrons in Egyptian sidewalk cafés on Steinway Avenue sip strong, sweet coffee and smoke tall water pipes. On Broadway, a dozen Greek cafés, some with live music, serve up late night snacks to hip club goers on their way to the city.
But one New Yorker's nightspot is another's menace.
Last summer, members of community board 1 in Astoria - complaining of noise, congestion, and restaurant owners who break the law - passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on sidewalk cafés. The measure was illegal and carried no power, but it still passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 28 to 2.
Lucile Hartman, the assistant district manager, said it was symbolic of the frustration in the neighborhood.
"This community likes outdoor cafés, but there are too many places operating illegally or expanding beyond the size that they are licensed for," said Hartman. "It can be very noisy, especially when they close and people are on the streets going home."
The number of sidewalk cafés in the city steadily increases by 20 percent each year, according the Department of Consumer Affairs. As the numbers grow, so do the tensions.
"As more an more cafés go in, there have to be efforts to maintain a quality urban environment," said Anthony Borelli of community board 4 in Chelsea, who estimates that there are 60 cafés along 8th and 9th Avenue. "You have to make sure they are not taking over the sidewalk and aren't causing pedestrian conflicts."
PARIS ON THE HUDSON
There are currently 722 licensed enclosed and open-air sidewalk cafés in New York City. And in general, said Gretchen Dykstra, Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, New Yorkers and tourists love them.
"New York is a city of sidewalks," said Dykstra. "Sitting and watching the parade of people is one of the reasons that people choose to visit and live here."
Restaurant and bar owners argue that sidewalk cafés add more than just ambiance to the city streets. They help revitalize blighted neighborhoods, make streets safer, and increase business for surrounding stores.
"Obviously, the cafés have also been beneficial for the restaurants and have created additional sales tax revenue for the city," said Charles Hunt of the New York State Restaurant Association.
However, residents often complain bitterly that too many cafés clog the sidewalks, making it difficult for people to get where they are going. Some cafés have been known to squeeze in a few extra tables and chairs to expand their seating – pushing pedestrians out on the street.
"Try to get through Greenwich Village with a stroller in the summer," complained Mary Aguilar, a mother navigating her carriage down Bleeker Street as if she were four wheeling in an SUV.
In the 1980's, the city banned unenclosed sidewalk cafés in dozens of locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens that have high pedestrian traffic. (See chart for areas where they are not allowed). But some restaurants still put out illegal tables and chairs. In recent years, owners have had little incentive to comply with regulations since the fine was $100.
"Some business have chosen to ignore the rules and operate without permits," said Hunt. "When caught, they pay fines and consider them part of the cost of doing business."
This spring, the city passed a new set of regulations that it hopes will ease some of the tensions between sidewalk cafés and residents.
The Department of Consumer Affairs has increased the number of inspectors and the boundaries of outdoor cafés must now be clearly marked on the sidewalks. The city also now has the power to padlock a café for 30 days after the third violation or if it is caught operating without a license.
While some owners embraced the new rules as a way to reward those who abide by the law, others felt it was a slap.
"I have problems with the three strikes and you're out laws or like the Rockefeller Drug law with mandatory sentences," said Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York Nightlife Association.
In March, the cash-strapped city also raised fees for sidewalk cafés for the first time since 1993, drawing complaints from café owners, who say business is already down.
The city charges owners on their location and number of seats; restaurants between Canal Street and 96th Street in Manhattan pay more than the rest of the city. Under the new fees, a large café on the Upper West Side saw its annual fee increase from $3,052 to $8,109. A small café in downtown Brooklyn increased from $435 to $1,440.
But one of the most significant changes, residents say, is that community boards now have an opportunity to consider the size of a sidewalk café before the license is approved. In the past, a café could tell the community board it wanted 10 tables and it would be approved. The next day, the owner could apply for a license for 20 tables from the city.
"We have an opportunity to negotiate," said Anthony Borelli of community board 4 in Chelsea. "We can now look at the number of tables, if more room is needed on corners, or take trees and other sidewalk furniture into consideration."
The city has also made an effort to streamline the bureaucratic process of obtaining a license to encourage restaurant and bar owners to comply with the law. Under the former rules, it could take up to 16 months to get one; an application will now move through the process in 110 days.
A NEW MENACE
The new café regulations may have eased some sidewalk conflicts, but the smoking ban has created new ones.
Nearly every night of the week, groups of smokers leave their half-empty drinks at the bar and huddle together outside, blocking sidewalks, talking, laughing and making noise. Some take their drinks with them, creating their own impromptu outdoor cafés.
"New York City used to have a lot of bars," wrote Joe Queenan in The Spectator. "Now it is a bar."
One of the few places that New Yorkers can still smoke is in a sidewalk café. City law allows 25 percent of an outdoor café to be designated as a "smoking section," a restriction that is difficult to enforce.
As of May 2003, the Department of Consumer Affairs had 150 additional sidewalk café licenses pending. The city attributes the increase to the new streamlined application process, not the smoking ban.
"We've never had someone come in and say `I want to apply for a sidewalk café license so people can smoke,'" said Dina Improta, a spokesperson for the Department of Consumer Affairs.
But some members of local community boards are concerned that recent gains in the battle for peace and quiet on the city's sidewalks will be undermined by the smoking ban – and that the noise and congestion will get worse as the summer progresses.
"We're used to putting up with noisy patrons on the way home, now we will have to put up with them all night," said Lucile Hartman of Astoria.
Do you have issues with sidewalk cafés in your neighborhood? Visit the Community Gazette homepage, find your neighborhood, and post a message under "COMMUNITY VIEWS – Ideas to Improve Your Neighborhood."
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