Pop-Up Café Expansion Faces Critical Community Board Vote Tonight

The pop-up café on Pearl Street has boosted foot traffic and improved business for nearby restaurants. DOT's plans to expand the program face an important community board vote tonight. Image: NYCDOT

When DOT installed its first “pop-up café” over a few parking spaces on Lower Manhattan’s Pearl Street last summer, the 14-table public seating area helped increase business by 14 percent at its two sponsoring restaurants. With New York City still recovering from recession and much of the city starved for public space, DOT has moved to expand the program. Restaurants were given the option of requesting a café and DOT selected twelve locations from that pool of applicants. The selected locations are concentrated in the Village and SoHo, making tonight’s Community Board 2 vote a critical moment for the program.

The pop-up café program is an import from San Francisco, where what they call “parklets” have replaced parking spaces with seating across the city. In New York’s program, the cafés are paid for by nearby restaurants looking for more nearby seating and greater visibility, though the seating is open to all and restaurants aren’t allowed to provide table service to the café. The cafés are only allowed in neighborhoods where there isn’t space for regular sidewalk cafés.

The basic premise is that in these neighborhoods, the balance between space for people and space for storing cars is out of whack; businesses will do better with more seating than with more parking.

DOT has decided to give community boards the total power to veto any pop-up café, according to the Downtown Express, which has editorialized in support of the program. Since more than half of the proposed locations are in the Village or SoHo, tonight’s vote by Community Board 2 will largely determine the shape of the project citywide.

Though CB 2’s transportation committee approved six out of the seven proposed applications in the area, tonight’s full board vote is expected to be more contentious. Sean Sweeney, co-chair of the board’s landmarks committee, strongly opposes the pop-up café concept, telling the Express, “It’s a commercial use incompatible with residential use.” Sweeney has a habit of using his organization, the Soho Alliance, to oppose any change in the neighborhood, including bike lanes and car-free streets.

The full board will vote tonight after allowing public testimony on this and other issues. Show up at 6:00 p.m. tonight at SEIU Local 32BJ’s offices, 101 Avenue of the Americas, 22nd Floor, to let the board know that you think supporting local businesses and creating public space is more important than a few parking spaces in this largely car-free neighborhood.

  • J

    I think there is a point to be made about noise in SoHo, specifically. It has many very tall buildings on narrow streets, which could create an echo effect which could be quite loud, especially late at night. Also, you could easily make the argument that SoHo and the Village have plenty on street life as it is, perhaps so much that the noise, trash, and vomit negatively affect the quality of life. If Sweeney and company were to make these arguments, I would probably understand and sympathize.

    However, Mr. Sweeney takes a much weirder approach, arguing that outdoor eating should be prohibited anywhere near residences or in so-called “manufacturing districts”. Other people argue that traffic poses a safety concern for these projects. However, the designated locations are on very low-traffic blocks, like MacDougal and Crosby street.

    Pop-up cafes are all over Montreal in the summer, and are quite successful (partly because they are the only type of outdoor eating allowed). This program is a good idea and will become successful and quite popular in one part of the city or the other. If SoHo wants to reject it, that’s fine. I’m sure there are tons of other neighborhoods that would fight for something like this.

  • Suzanne

    How is vibrant street life incompatible with “residential use”?

    Maybe the residents need to be polled to see if they hate the idea so much. Or does one (unfortunately powerful) crank get to call all the shots, as is the case in Park Slope.

  • Moser

    Name one place in Soho where you can presently sit down outdoors.

  • J B

    If noise is a problem at night then just close them past 9pm. I was born and raised in Soho, and I see no reason why sidewalk cafes are “incompatible” with residential life. I think Sweeney’s goal is to preserve the old-school, quiet neighborhood-like Soho of yesteryear, and I can see how he’d worry about cafes being used solely for tourists and not doing anything for residents. But that Soho is long gone, and not setting up sidewalk cafes is not going to make it come back.

  • Fancy you’d mention “close them by 9pm.” That was exactly the time that the transportation committee chose to require all applicants close their outdoor operation.

    Nonetheless, nearly all the applicants, save one, fell victim to to the side that argued cynicism and an interest in preventing social interaction – even when 9pm was the absolute latest operating hour. Several people even argued that this was a proposal to take away public space – my head was spinning. And as usual, no livable-streets advocates appeared to talk sense.

  • Daphna

    @Ian Dutton What happened?!? How did the vote go?!? This pop-up cafe expansion is very important! I regret very much that I did not get there to speak. People are afraid of change – that is all. They need to give the new way a chance! If it got voted down, is there a way for the community to ask the Community Board to put it back on the agenda next month and have another vote?

    Maybe the livable streets community could be mobilized to show up next time. This was not listed on the streetsblog calendar and only in the article just hours before the meeting. Also, Transportation Alternatives did not send out an email encouraging people to go. Maybe that is why there was small turn out.

    These pop-up cafes are the right thing to do and I am going to be devastated if this Community Board voted them down.

  • Daphna

    So the DOT wanted 7 pop-up cafes. Then the Transportation Committee of Community Board 2 cut it down to 6. The the full Manhattan Community Board 2 cut it down to 1. This is horrible! These community boards do not represent their communities!

    Going forward:
    1) Is there any way to convince the DOT to treat the community boards as advisory-only? That is all they are. DOT has voluntarily given them more authority. These community boards clearly do not represent their communities so if anything they should be weakened instead of made stronger as the DOT is doing. (The DOT does not get credit in the media anyway for having collaborated with the community, so they should just do what is right for our streets. The DOT is loosing out in every way: they are letting their livable streets plans get watered down, canceled, or delayed by community boards, but then they are not even getting credit for having compromised. Meanwhile, the DOT suffers bad press and New Yorkers suffer from not having livable streets.)

    2) Is there any way to lobby Manhattan Community Board 2 with letters and emails and get them to reconsider the other 6 pop-up cafes that were turned down? If they got a deluge of emails, maybe they would put it on the agenda for next month and vote a second time.

  • Clover

    There was a CB2 Transportation special hearing two weeks ago covering only the pop-ups, and very few supporters were there. I sat through the entire 5-hour meeting. The Transportation Committee did approve most of the applications, and then the full board meeting last night was the second opportunity for supporters to show up. Very few did. Local cafe, the only pop-up to be approved, had at least 5 nearby residents/customers come to speak. That’s likely why it was approved.

    It’s a classic case of not showing up to support a concept leads to a vote to deny.

  • Paul

    Look at all those criminals in the photo. It’s anti-American to have dinner outside!

    Seriously though, from my experience there’s alway at least one person on a board who’s a bit out of their mind. One board member even stole a whole box of cupcakes I brought to a holiday party. Sweeny is the sweet thief of this board.

  • Wow. This is one place where San Francisco is ahead of New York.

    We have about half a dozen, and more are on the way

    They have proven to be quite popular.

    Perhaps you need to just ask for more. We tried to get a smaller version of your Broadway Street closure in our neighborhood, which resulted in all sorts of crazy animosity from NIMBYs. The upside was that the NIMBYs were so desperate to keep the street from being closed, that they became huge advocates for the parklets.

  • Heard I was being trashed here by a bunch of sore losers and came to check it out.

    When CBs support bike lanes, they are great. When they pop down pop-ups, they are bad.
    Consistency isn’t one of your strong points is it, kids?

    The reason this idea was canned is that a lot – a lot – more people thought it was ridiculous than you handful of slacktivists who think that typing away on streetsblog all day will change the world.

    Enjoy our wonderful democracy:
    http://newyork.nearsay.com/nyc/other/department-transportation-pop-up-cafe

  • Cormac Flynn

    I really need to take issue with Ian Dutton on this one. I am an advocate of livable streets. I like pop-up cafe’s generally and I’m very excited by the idea of having a lot more. And last night I spoke against approval for the one on my block. I simply had no other choice in light of the way CB2 has handled this project.

    This was not NIMBYism. It was not about DOT. It sure wasn’t about Sadik-Kahn or the livable streets agenda. It was about community process and trust.

    For decades the residents of my block have fought to prevent sidewalk cafes. Suddenly there was a proposal for a cafe on our block set for approval that no one had even heard of until 48 hours before the vote and no one could get any details or information about.

    I’m not talking about disengaged people or people unknown to the Community Board. I’m the co-chair of the Block Association. My block has long-time activists well known to the board from regular appearances at a variety of committees. Further, activist residents above and across from the proposed pop-up knew nothing and couldn’t find anyone in their buildings who did either.

    Why would that be?

    Well, maybe it was because instead of putting the project through, say, the closely watched Sidewalks Committee, or holding a specially scheduled and promoted hearing on the whole thing (it being novel), the pop-ups were brought through the Traffic Committee which has a whole different constituency that is not the folks that pay attention to outdoor cafes and other restaurant/street related noise issues. (Indeed it meets opposite the SLA licensing committee.)

    Ironically, many of the folks I’ve spoken to on my block are open to (if a bit wary of) the idea. But they have a lot of questions and need (and deserve) answers. We plan to meet with the applicant to see if we can’t still work things out. But it never had to come to this if the board hadn’t followed such a closed-lip, low-key, under-the-radar process in the first place.

    Don’t lay last night on the NIMBYs, the cynics, the DOT, or JSK. Last night was a self-inflicted wound.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Cormac:

    I appreciate the thoughtful and informative comment.

    Truly, do you really think the outcome would have been any different had the proposal been presented to the Sidewalks Committee? What kind of process would have allowed this modest proposal to move forward?

    I’ve been watching your Community Board for quite a few years now and it seems consistently intent on opposing and killing any use of SoHo streets beyond parking and thru-traffic.

  • Cormac Flynn

    Marty,

    I can’t speak for SoHo, but I think anyone who watched the Board debate would have to agree that the reason that the West 8th Street location was not approved was that the neighbors could not support it because when we had so few details about it and so little notice of it.

    Anytime you appear to be trying to pull a fast one, you are going to get people alarmed.

    I can tell you that I personally think there is a very good chance that the application on my block could have had the kind of community support the successful application got if we had been approached by anybody about it beforehand. (We only found out abut it from the opposition. I mean, for crying out loud we’ve testified for bike lanes in front of the Traffic Committee!) Even having found out about the application the day before the hearing, people I spoke to on the block were open to a conversation – but CB2 board members themselves were confused about the details, and the DOT difficult to navigate in that time. (Ever try calling them with a question? Pretty much like all city agencies. It takes a few days for the right person to get back to you.) There just wasn’t time to have all the conversations and hammer out all the concerns in the atmosphere of suspicion and panic created by the silence.

    Would the project have fared better in the light of a full community debate via the Sidewalks Committee? I don’t know. But I’ll give odds there would be at least one more. And I’d guess a few of the other locations might have been able to come to terms with their neighbors in a more open, if louder, process.

  • Cormac Flynn

    My apologies for the typos in the preceding post.

  • Cormac:

    To review, the pop-up cafe concept first arose at a CB2 forum in April, 2010. A presentation was made by DOT to CB2’s Transportation Committee in November, 2010, in which we gave our initial feedback on the program. It was the only such presentation to any community board, based on our interest in the program and the resident inquiries. You’ll find an overview of that in the CB2 Transportation Committee minutes of Nov. 2010.

    Earlier this month, we had a 5-hour meeting to discuss the program and each applicant – in fact, it was the “specially scheduled and promoted hearing on the whole thing” that you suggested would have been proper! Over 100 people attended. Then, of course, we had dozens of speakers at Thursday’s meeting – the 4th time that the concept had been discussed at a CB2 meeting. The Post had at least three articles to throw mud at the program, as well as DNAInfo and other outlets.

    I admit – I did not go door to door to tell people. I did not go through a telephone list of residents in CB2, nor ride a horse through the district yelling, “pop-ups are coming! pop-ups are coming!” But clearly this did not come up out of nowhere and many people were, in fact, aware of the plan.

    You missed the news? I’m not surprised – in such a busy city, I miss things too. But what is your level of expectation? CB2 is one of the only CBs that still posts notices on light poles in the vicinity of applications, but people still say we keep things a secret.

    And it went through the Transportation Committee because our committee asked for it, DOT organized it, it is in the STREET and not on the SIDEWALK, and is not a “commercialized” space, like a sidewalk cafe. Because of its elements similar to sidewalk cafes, the Sidewalk Committee was invited to participate, as Maury did (and me, since I’m on both committees), but it was not DCA and not on the sidewalk.

    In all seriousness, if you have any idea how CBs can get the word out better, we want to know. On every issue we hear the same thing, “no one told me that there would be a liquor license”, “no one asked me if I wanted the bike lane.” The CB posts, emails, has a website… and very little money. I know that there was a misinformation campaign conducted against pop-up cafes, but I have a job and a life, unlike some of the opposition. We’re just volunteers and we want to do the best for the neighborhood.

  • Cormac Flynn

    Ian,

    We are just going to have to agree to disagree on outreach both generally and in this case. I can’t say how CB2 compares with other boards, but lets just say that my experience does not track with your characterization either CB2s efforts or interest. (And for the record some of those green notices regarding the specific application for my block would have been useful – and did not appear.)

    As a community member, I really appreciate the effort every board member puts in to what is really a thankless job.

    But lets take the case of my block. This is not a block that has no cafes because it never could. This is a block with decades of loud fights to prevent them, including a skirmish in the last year that members of the board are aware of. The chair of your committee has been a frequent and prominent participant in these debates. In fact, the current streetscape and infrastructure was designed and installed specifically to prevent outdoor cafes on the block in response to community demand. Yet despite this, the applicant tells me that no one on your committee advised them specifically to contact the block association or the specific tenants of their own and adjacent buildings (which is SOP on the SLA committee, for instance). Your committee also found time to directly reach out to and brief the BID for our block, so I don’t see why a call or email to the residents association is so outlandish an idea. (Especially as colluding with the BID against the residents of my block has been SOP for the Transportation Committee for years.)

    I appreciate your commitment to civic improvement and community dialogue and the many, many long hours you put in. I appreciate that the board has an overcrowded agenda. But I still say that the failure of the application on my block had more to do with lack of timely notice of specific applications, lack of readily available information to answer questions, and reason-based lack of trust in the Transportation Committee than with cynicism or a desire to prevent social interaction.

  • BC

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