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Open Streets Groups Warn of Extra Red Tape to Run Events

Two weeks notice for hopscotch or a yoga class?

After four years of volunteering, they don’t want to jump through more hoops just for some jump ropes.

The Adams administration wants to formally require every event hosted on an open street to get sign off from the Mayor’s Office’s Street Activity Permit Office (also known as SAPO) — alarming largely volunteer organizers who worry extra layers of bureaucracy will discourage use of the public spaces to their fullest potential.

“The form to get Macy’s to do a parade is the same that I have to have hopscotch or a jump rope,” said Jim Burke, an organizer behind the “gold standard” 34th Avenue open street in Jackson Heights. “If you want to start an open street in your neighborhood, this is an arduous thing you’d have to do. It’s painful.”

The pandemic-era program transformed dozens of miles of streets into playgrounds, outdoor classrooms, dance classes, fitness studios, and concerts, as pent-up New Yorkers clawed back the public realm from cars — and in no small part thanks to the largely hands-off approach by the city government during the open streets's early years.

But the city's incoming regulations will make it unnecessarily harder to replicate that success, especially in areas where residents lack the time, knowledge, or money to sift through more onerous applications and approvals, longtime public space advocates said.

“The open street program is a great program, it has made a great difference. It’s just getting things done, the bureaucracy, is what’s going to pull us back,” said Lonnie Hardy, who runs the one-block open street on Jennings Street in the South Bronx as director of the Caldwell Enrichment Program.

The city has previously required open streets volunteers to get SAPO approval, but now the city will formal empowering the office with more detailed powers under a proposed rule. The Department of Transportation will still determine traffic restrictions that close streets off or limit access to cars for other uses, but SAPO requires up to $1 million in liability insurance, plus a small event fee and up to 45 days' notice. 

The office has a long history of making it hard to reclaim streets from cars by requiring extensive input from community boards and police precincts for events as simple as a block cleanup.

For the labor-of-love volunteers of open streets, SAPO's $25 processing fee alone adds up if they decide host a weekly yoga class.

“Even if it's $100 a month I would have to cut back on something,” said Hardy. “That extra $100 can definitely buy paint or whatever supplies we need; cups of water — it’s hot outside, we need to pay for cups.”

The city plans to waive the $25 fee for open street partners under the new rules, according to DOT spokesperson Vin Barone.

The Jennings Street open street has become a haven of activity, such as teaching kids to ride bikes, circus shows and basketball games, Hardy said. But the Bronxite has declined to file permits with SAPO for these events on her open street; instead she distributes fliers, including to the local precinct and Council members, to make sure people know what’s going on. 

“I just go ahead and organize events. I guess because we’re in the South Bronx nobody pays that much attention,” she said. “You have the OK to close down [the street], and then you have to turn around and consistently add on? No, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

The city can be slow to get back on applications too, said one Lower East Side organizer.

"It goes around the dark side of the moon for a while and it comes back the week of the event. We know that and so it doesn’t freak us out," said Laura Sewell, executive director of the East Village Community Coalition, which supports the open street on Avenue B. "I’ve had block associations cancel block parties because they didn’t get the permit a week ahead of time."

DOT celebrated the launch of this year’s open streets season on Earth Day this past Saturday with six hours of programming, while announcing an initial batch of 130 locations. However, marquee locations had to scale back this year due to funding issues, like Fifth Avenue in Park Slope or Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights. The city has also been slow to reimburse operators tens of thousands of dollars for last year’s efforts.

Until 2022 the organizers did not need prior approval for every single event and directly worked with DOT, which is responsible for open streets, organizers said. 

Burke, of the 34th Avenue open street said organizers' annual vetting by DOT should give them more leeway to host events.

“For a four-year open street partner, the process should be much easier,” said Burke.

The Queens resident said it’s also harder to get unpaid staff to go through the paperwork, even on the hugely successful 26-block open street that officials have lauded as the program’s

“We’ve burned through the volunteers that help us do this,” Burke said. 

The rules will send an especially chill wind across smaller-scale efforts without organized backing, said Jackson Chabot, the director of advocacy at Open Plans (which shares a parent organization with Streetsblog). 

“Our local public space stewards have been carrying the Open Streets program on their backs for years and the lack of support and simplicity is leading to serious burnout,” Chabot said in a statement. “There are some easy ways to encourage public space use, rather than the opposite, and we’re asking the city to pursue those instead of these onerous rules.”

Groups have helped each other through the process and have found workarounds, like bundling a month’s worth of events into one application and filing their open street partner contract with DOT in place of insurance papers, but it’s unclear if those loopholes will be allowed to continue.

Officials should let approved open street partners run events and simply inspect them regularly in case there are any issues, rather than require all the upfront paperwork, said an uptown organizer. 

“The city should be doing everything possible for operators, who are primarily volunteers, to put on events without jumping through a million hoops,” said Peter Frishauf, of the W. 103rd Street open street. “It’s disappointing that this is once again being sentenced to a byzantine’s rules process.” 

DOT last year vowed to spend $30 million to boost funding for the maintenance of open streets as well as plazas, focusing on under-resourced neighborhoods, but most of that money is for staffing and upkeep, with approximately $1 million dedicated to programming, according to Barone, who contended the new rules will be a boon.

“Open Street programming helps bring neighbors together and that’s why NYC DOT helps provide financial and technical support to our partners to host events,” the DOT rep said in a statement. “SAPO is the go-to for all organizations securing permits for events in plazas, streets, and other public spaces in the city, and we’re confident the rules for our permanent program will help streamline the permitting process, not hinder it.”

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