Let’s Not Give Away the Streets to Landlords and Restaurants

A version of this was published in the Village Sun, July 2021
Lynn Ellsworth

I love sidewalk cafes. I especially like the nice ones that have comfy chairs and plantings that separate me from people passing by while I eat. I also like a lively street-life and while some of the new food sheds on the streets are great, giving away the roadway sidewalks permanently to restaurants is a truly bad idea.

I don’t have a car: 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, bike rakes, car-shares, big tents quasi-permanently installed 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, smorgasboards, and farmer’s markets. None of these involve cars.

But the new proposal to permanently give away all the sidewalks and roadways in Manhattan as-of-right 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. That might be worked out. But the roadway part of the giveaway is a terrible idea. Here’s why and how to fix it.

  • First, the restaurant industry is not still the victim portrayed in the media last year: they are getting massive federal bailouts. The latest federal bailout fund being proposed is for $60 billion, on top of the$30 billion bailout they already got and the $800 million to small businesses from New York State. We don’t need to feel guilty.
  • DOT is proposing to give restaurants (and the landlords) big chunks of the sidewalk and the roadway for trivial license fees and a consent fee that currently tops out at $20,000 for prime Manhattan below 96th Street. This is not the same as charging meaningful rents. Why are we not charging rent to a private business that uses our public realm to make private profits? We should not be giving our assets away and losing the economic value of this space for the public budget. There is a kind hypocrisy here as well since real rent is not unheard of for sidewalk space. DOT charged one Christmas tree vendor $56,000 a month for sidewalk space in SoHo. So why not charge restaurants real rent as well? Before this proposal goes any further we need a financial study on the value of this space and how much it is worth. If the city does not capture the value of sidewalk space in rents, then private landlords will surely capture the value by charging higher rents to the restaurants. I can imagine the landlord lobby already rubbing their hands together in greedy anticipation. Many landlords will double their square footage just by taking over the public space, for trivial rent and thus charge higher rents increasing the gentrification pressure on our blocks.
  • DOT should not be the regulatory agency for sidewalk cafes. They are traffic engineers and have no idea how to do this right. Community boards ought to be the regulatory agency on the well-known governmental principle of “subsidiarity”: the lowest agency with the most knowledge should manage things.
  • DOT has taken a massive deregulatory approach here rather than a thoughtful one: trivial permit fees, generous “waivers” for violating the rules, free rent, ignoring the service lane requirement for outdoor cafes, no design review, warnings instead of fines, 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.
  • DOT has not 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 they can. Department of Buildings is famous for not collecting $1.4 billion in outstanding fines. How would DOT do any better?
  • Habitually despotic DOT has never given neighborhoods the chance to do their own strategic planning over their streets. Why not redesign the process so we can do this? There is so much talk of community planning in the City Council: it could start with the streets. Lots of questions: Which streets do we want pedestrian? Where do we want our farmer’s markets? Where can we have parklets and street seats? What if we want to turn an entire side street over to a park-like purpose? Where to put some carshares? Where can we put permanent play streets – like in front of preschools? What about bike racks for people who own their own bikes put onto the street? Where can community organizations put up a tent on the street for civic and non-profit meetings? Where can we make a dog run in a street? Where do we want sidewalk cafes to proliferate and where do we want to keep them in check? Where do we want to put public art instead of DOT deciding for us? What recourse should communities have in cases like that of Felix on West Broadway, where the noise, chaos and drinking is horrific – a problem that could happen anywhere? DOT has no substantive answers to any of these questions. My suggestion: the sidewalk and road plans should arise out of real neighborhood planning, not from one-size-fits all impositions of a despotic DOT in a plan that will ultimately benefit the landlords who own the spaces that restaurants lease.

Last, rather than privatize our roadways to restaurants, let’s physically widen the sidewalk. This would rectify the disastrous road widening program DOT undertook in the 50’s and 60’s. Doing so would also eliminate most of the road sharing issues that vex the current proposal.

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