New York Daily News

Don’t give restaurant­s our streets

- BY LYNN ELLSWORTH Ellsworth is chair of Humanscale NYC, a network of civic organizati­ons across the five boroughs.

Ilove sidewalk cafes — especially the nice ones with plantings that separate me from people passing by while I eat. I also like a lively street life and have enjoyed some of the new dining sheds in the roads. But giving away the public roadways and sidewalks permanentl­y to restaurant­s is a truly bad idea. I don’t have a car, so this is not about parking. Rather, I have long imagined other uses for our streets: outdoor classrooms, plazas, playstreet­s, shaded boulevards with widened sidewalks, entirely new parks and parklets, dog runs, big tents for civic meetings for community organizati­ons, and delivery distributi­on points. I’ve imagined places on streets for pushcarts and newsstands, and streets given over to holiday markets, flea markets, smorgasbor­ds and farmer’s markets. None of these involve parking for cars.

The new proposal to permanentl­y give away the sidewalks and roadways as-ofright to the restaurant industry — and the landlords who own those retail spaces — is deeply flawed. There is no way to that this is not a radical privatizat­ion of the public realm. I would support the sidewalk part of the proposal only if the city had any regulatory capacity and if we were charging meaningful rent for the space. But the roadway part of the giveaway is a terrible idea. Here’s what’s wrong and how to fix it.

First, the restaurant industry is not now the same COVID victim as portrayed in the media last year: They are getting massive federal bailouts. Legislator­s propose topping up the bailout fund with $60 billion on top of the $28 billion bailout they already got and the $800 million New York State allocated to small businesses as grants. We don’t need to feel guilty.

Second, the city’s Department of Transporta­tion is proposing to give restaurant­s (and the landlords) big chunks of the sidewalk and the roadway for consent fees that don’t obviously reflect market parameters such as $20,000 for 500 square feet in Manhattan below 96th St. Are these market-rate fees for the space?

Something is off: DOT charged one Christmas tree vendor $56,000 for just one month of sidewalk space in SoHo. So why not charge restaurant­s real rent as well, rather than unclear or below market consent fees? Before this proposal goes any further we need a financial study on the value of this space. If the city does not capture that value in rents, then private landlords will surely do it for them by charging higher rents to the restaurant­s.

Third, we need to learn how the DOT is managing outdoor dining so far. For sure, it’s been a massive deregulato­ry approach rather than a thoughtful one — applying trivial permit fees, granting generous “waivers” for violating the rules, ignoring the service lane requiremen­t for outdoor cafes, having no design review, and slow-walking community complaints on issues related to noise, overcrowde­d sidewalks, trash, rats and abandoned sheds. Wrong approach! It treats the residents of the neighborho­od and other users of the sidewalk as irrelevant and it misses the point that every neighborho­od is physically different and may require different regulation. Nor has the DOT figured out a procedural solution to the noise, trash and overcrowdi­ng problems that already exist. Sure, imposing fines would be better than a slap on the wrist, but can they collect the fines? I doubt it. The Department of Buildings is famous for not collecting $1.4 billion in outstandin­g fines. How would DOT do any better?

Fourth, the DOT should not be the regulatory agency overseeing sidewalk cafes. They are traffic engineers and have no idea how to do this right. Community boards ought to be the regulatory agency for this — on the well-known government­al principle of “subsidiari­ty” in which the lowest agency with the most knowledge should manage things.

Fifth, we need to have a larger conversati­on before taking action. Which streets do we want to give over fully to pedestrian­s? Where do we want our farmers’ markets? Where can we have parklets and street seats? Can we put permanent play-streets in front of preschools? What about bike racks for people who own their own bikes? Where do what a lot of sidewalk cafes and where do we need quiet and calm? On what street can we create a dog run? The point is, our sidewalk and road plans should arise out of local neighborho­od planning, not from one-size-fits-all citywide prescripti­ons.

Last, rather than privatize our roadways to restaurant­s, we should consider physically widening the sidewalks. This would rectify the disastrous road widening program DOT undertook in the 1950s and 60s. Doing so would also eliminate most of the road sharing issues that vex the current proposal.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States