By SUSAN EDELMAN
There she goes again.
Undaunted by criticism of her pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, city Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is rolling out another pet project: “pop-up cafés” erected in gutters, traffic lanes and parking spots.
The Department of Transportation has green-lighted 12 applications by Manhattan and Brooklyn eateries to build 6-foot-wide wooden platforms alongside the curbs of city streets.
Café tables and chairs, like those in Times Square, would be set up inches from moving traffic, with planters serving as buffers. Open to anyone, people could order food from sponsoring eateries, or just sit and not buy anything. Booze and smoking would be forbidden
The scheme is revving up just days after Sadik-Khan ditched a widely denounced plan to block traffic on 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues for a pedestrian mall.
This time, Sadik-Khan says DOT won’t foist the makeshift public areas on neighborhoods, like she did with bike lanes, but will let community boards bless or veto each one.
“No one’s here to force this on anybody,” DOT planner Ed Janoff told a crowd at a meeting of Community Board 2’s transportation committee last week.
But many SoHo residents fear just that. They blasted the “harebrained idea” — modeled after similar cafes in San Francisco, Nova Scotia and Florence, Italy and tested successfully last summer in front of Fika Espresso and Bombay’s Indian restaurant on Pearl Street in the Financial District.
“The DOT is trying to do an end-run around zoning rules” that ban sidewalk cafes in SoHo, said SoHo Alliance executive director Sean Sweeney. “We don’t want outdoor dining or public plazas in our neighborhood!”
Community Board 2’s committee recommended six of seven applications in Greenwich Village and SoHo. It also agreed to require the pop-ups to close at 9 p.m., although DOT would let them stay open until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends.
Besides extra noise, crowds and rats scurrying for dropped food, residents said the curbside cafes might be dangerous.
“If a driver happens to be texting, he could slam into a cafe at 35 to 40 mph,” said Maury Schott, chairman of the sidewalks committee, who noted that some cafes would protrude into the street where no parking is allowed.
Restaurants and other shops would have to buy insurance, as well as pay to design, construct, furnish and maintain the pop-ups.
Vittorio Antonini, owner of La Lanterna, a trattoria on MacDougal Street in the Village, joined with Tea Spot next door to apply for a 60-foot-long pop-up. He estimated it will seat 20 and cost $10,000. Because of a bike lane across the street, the cafés would force cars to
squeeze into a single narrow lane.
Grub street: City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has green-lighted up to 12 “pop-up cafes” — public areas with tables and chairs built in the streets. Community boards have final approval. Applicants include:
Tea Spot, 127 MacDougal St.
La Lanterna, 129 MacDougal St.
* Chez Jacqueline, 72 MacDougal St.
* Le Pain Quotidien, 10 Fifth Ave.
* Salume, 330 West Broadway
* Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, 126 Crosby St.
* Le Rivage, 340 W. 46th St.
* Le Pain Quotidien, 708 3rd Ave.
* Le Pain Quotidien, 922 Seventh Ave.
* Ecopolis Café, 180 Smith St., Brooklyn
Volume 78 / Number 6 – July 9 – 15, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Artists aren’t sold on new vendors bill, residents, too
By Albert Amateau
Swarms of street vendors, legal and illegal, have been an issue for years in Downtown Manhattan neighborhoods, particularly in Soho and along Canal St. Vendors have also been the subject of criticism in Battery Park and, after 9/11, near the World Trade Center site.
In a renewed response to the problem, City Councilmember Alan Gerson, whose district includes Soho and part of Chinatown, has proposed legislation that he hopes will straighten out the tangle of existing vendor regulations.
“We need to make our laws clearer so that vendors can earn an honest living while co-existing with the pedestrians with whom they share our streets,” Gerson said. “Our sidewalks cannot be an obstacle course that daunts pedestrian movement and creates hazardous conditions.
“This is a reasonable effort to keep our sidewalks safe and livable and at the same time allow vendors to make a living.”
Gerson expects the City Council to hold hearings in the fall on the package of legislation by various councilmembers that would implement the proposed changes. The proposal would modify existing rules but not replace them. The measure would cover food and produce vendors, general-merchandise vendors, special preferences that exist for disabled veterans and the category of artists and vendors of material covered under the First Amendment — who zealously guard their right under the law to operate without any permits or licenses.
The proposal would establish rules for sharing vending space, the placement of vending stands and marking curbside vending space with paint or signs, in some cases authorizing a lottery wherever the Department Consumer Affairs or the police deem it necessary — with preference for First Amendment material and veterans. The proposal would also clearly spell out the art and First Amendment material that can be sold by vendors without a license.
But advocates for artist and First Amendment vendors are strongly against the proposals. Their response: “Enforce the existing law instead of imposing new laws.”
“Ludicrous,” was the word Robert Lederman used. Lederman is president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Resistance To Illegal State Tactics), an organization of artist street vendors, and the plaintiff in several lawsuits that resulted in the doctrine that First Amendment vendors do not have to be licensed — and that visual art is also protected free speech under the First Amendment as far as vending rules are concerned.
“A huge negative,” said Lawrence White, who sold his dance photos on the streets of Soho for 10 years. “The positive parts do not outweigh the bad — the proposed lottery, the displacement of legal vendors, the reclassification of artwork and space restrictions would cause serious harm to vendors,” he said.
White contends that the main problem is that the police and other agencies are unwilling or unable to enforce rules against the illegal vendors — unlicensed merchandise vendors and vendors who falsely claim to sell First Amendment-privileged items but who sell “bootleg” items that infringe copyrights.
Meanwhile, White said, police — with the help of private agents for trademark luxury manufacturers — make periodic sweeps of merchants who sell counterfeit pricey brands of watches and handbags. But “artists are totally left out of the protection of the law,” White said.
Lederman said his group does not believe artists should have no restrictions at all on where to display and sell their work.
“There are 60 pages of existing rules about where no one can sell anything,” he said. “No vending within 20 feet of a doorway, for example. You can go out and see any number of illegal vendors within 10 feet of a doorway,” he noted.
“Preposterous,” said Sean Sweeney, president of the Soho Alliance and a longtime critic of street vending, who nonetheless dismissed Gerson’s initiative.
“There are laws on the books that are enforceable, but police don’t enforce them,” Sweeney said. The alliance back in 1999 was able to get Prince and Spring Sts. between Broadway and West Broadway declared a no-vendor zone on Saturdays and Sundays, Sweeney said.
“Legal, illegal — you’re not supposed to sell anything there during that time,” Sweeney said. “They kept it clear for a while, but after 2001 the peddlers came back and they’re still there. What good are new laws when you don’t enforce the ones that exist? Enforcement first before new legislation,” he said.
Sweeney recalled he was at a recent meeting where Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were the featured speakers and he asked them when the city would get rid of the peddlers in Soho.
“Bloomberg got involved in another conversation and Kelly said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather get rid of the murderers?’ I told him there were no murderers in Soho,” Sweeney recalled.
“I don’t think it will ever get passed,” Sweeney predicted of the Gerson proposal.
However, the councilmember insists his proposal goes a long way to improving enforcement. One section calls for the Police Department to increase the size of its vendor task force and create distinct units for denser vending areas, including Community Boards 1, 2 and 3, which together cover the area between the Battery and 14th St. The expanded task force would target efforts to end vending of stolen and counterfeit merchandise. The proposal also calls for training the appropriate city agency and the expanded vendor task force to identify counterfeit artwork or artwork sold in violation of copyright law, “the eradication of which shall be an integral mission of the vendor task force.”
Gerson’s proposal for a periodic lottery to assign vendor spaces was a special target of criticism by Lederman, who said it was enforceable only by licensing artist vendors or First Amendment vendors.
The proposal’s definition of First Amendment item includes religious material; written, audio or visual material, whether original or not; and artwork, whether original or not, including painting, photography, sculpture, calligraphy, collages or other depictions, representations or designs.
Nevertheless, the proposal says that no item would qualify for First Amendment protection if the medium used for transmittal or depiction of the message serves a “non-incidental functional purpose unrelated to the content of the message.”
Lederman said the functional purpose exclusion would be very troublesome.
“The line between function and content is very thin and great museum curators can’t separate them,” he said. “What if you’re making reproductions of ancient Greek vases? What if you are a potter?”
The Gerson initiative also lays out penalties for violation of rules on placement of vending stands or vending practices. For a third violation, any vendor license would be suspended for six months; in cases of First Amendment vendors, their right to vend could be suspended for six months for a second violation, and suspended for an additional six months for subsequent repeated offenses.
“I’ve never heard of losing the right of free expression for an offense,” Lederman said, “It’s ludicrous.”
The proposal also would expand vendor opportunities and empower the Department of Small Business Services to work with community boards to develop self-sustaining vendor markets, specifically within Council District 1 — Gerson’s district, which covers Lower Manhattan, the Lower East Side, Soho, Chinatown, Little Italy and the South Village. Those potential vendor markets would include one or more of the glass-enclosed pavilions planned for the East River esplanade, the New York City Transit site at Houston and Lafayette Sts., the open areas near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, unused parts of Sara Roosevelt Park, a site at Lispenard St. near Canal St. and other locations.
“It’s not a perfect plan,” Gerson said. “There’s still room for improvement and change. That is what City Council hearings are for.”
Street Closures and the Battle of Prince Street
by Graham T. Beck
Photo (cc) Raúl C.
“If they want to come here with their engineers and bulldozers, we’ll be at the barricades with balaclavas,” said Sean Sweeny, director of the SoHo Alliance. For Sweeney and his supporters, the Department of Transportation’s plan to close Prince Street in between Lafayette Street and West Broadway to automobile traffic from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. for 14 consecutive summer Sundays constitutes an assault on their neighborhood.
Last month, when the department presented the plan to Manhattan Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, some people let the agency know as much. “The whole room erupted in boos. It turned riotous,” Sweeney said. “I’ve been on the Community Board for 18 years and it was one of the most cacophonous, riotous, calamitous meetings I’ve ever been part of. SoHo has been ruined in the last 10 years with commercialism. This would have been the nail in the coffin. The meeting was our Little Big Horn, our last stand. We’re not becoming a mall.”
But other SoHo residents, like Ian Dutton and the rest of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee disagree. “If you think that closing Prince Street on a couple of Sundays will turn it into a mall, you haven’t walked in SoHo in 10 years,” said Dutton. “What you have now is a very uncomfortable pedestrian experience for everyone ( the people who live here and the tourists) so why not see what can be done to make it better. There is no point in cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
And so the battle lines were drawn.
Despite the almost immediate acerbic reactions to the plan (the Streetsblog.org post that broke the story received 75 comments , 10 of which were, to put it mildly, vehemently opposed). The Department of Transportation did not propose a temporary closure on Prince Street simply to flex its muscles. The idea probably had root in London’s highly successful temporary street closures, called “Very Important Pedestrian days,” on Regent and Oxford streets, two of the West End’s premiere shopping corridors. The work of world renowned urban planner Jan Gehl, who conducted pedestrian counts and street life surveys for the city along Prince Street in 2007 may have also encouraged the proposal, along with a 2006 Transportation Alternatives’s study conducted by Bruce Schaller, now a deputy commissioner at the transportation department.
All of these efforts point to a way of creating districts where pedestrians greatly outnumber vehicles. In some locations, the reasoning goes, a street has more value as a place for pedestrians than solely as a means of automobile transportation. This kind of thinking no doubt guided the transportation department, along with a desire to create a more pedestrian friendly city, an explicit aim of both Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC2030 and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan
Of course, temporary street closures are nothing new. New York City has a long history of them, most far less contentious than the recent Prince Street hullabaloo. In 1970, Mayor John Lindsay decreed that portions of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street be closed to cars in honor of Earth Day. The plan was so popular that Fifth Avenue was made car-free four times that July. A Department of Commerce and Industry survey concluded that 77 percent of the visitors stopped to shop on car-free days. “Suddenly the avenue was full of baby carriages, bicyclists, street musicians, smiling couples, all reveling in the car-free quiet and safety of what had become wall to wall sidewalk,” Time magazine reported later that summer.
For five years in the early 1990s then-Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer closed the Grand Concourse from 161st Street to 198th Street every Sunday from July to November. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani put an end to that, but in 2005 Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. brought Car-Free Sundays back to the Grand Concourse where they remain a summer attraction.
Even small-scale temporary street closures, like the one on Sundays on the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street, which has been happening since the mid-1960s, have proved popular over time and largely without a deleterious impact on area traffic. “Disappearing Traffic? The Story So Far,” a paper by Sally Cairns and others, examined over 70 road closures and surveyed more than 200 transportation professionals on the subject. It found that “predictions of traffic problems are often unnecessarily alarmist, and that, given appropriate local circumstances, significant reductions in overall traffic levels can occur.”
Still, when the idea of closing a street, even temporarily, is first proposed, many local businesses and residents object. “Communities tend to be resistant to any city-sponsored street closing. They claim that it’s people in cars who are shoppers,” said “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, president and CEO of Sam Schwartz PLLC and a former first deputy commissioner at the city Department of Transportation. “It’s kind of like a Yogi Berra-ism, trying to convince people that ‘nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”
Fighting For Space
Few would argue that Prince Street isn’t already crowded. There are narrow sidewalks, scores of vendors, cars, bikes and subway entrances between Lafayette Street and West Broadway. According to the transportation department’s “Prince Street Pedestrian Project” presentation, about 4,500 people per hour walk on Prince Street’s sidewalks on Saturday and Sundays between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., while 200 cars per hour use the street during the same time period.
Those in favor of the plan see it as a sensible and proportionate allocation of street space, a precious commodity in downtown Manhattan. They emphasize that a trial closure one day a week will determine whether creating more room for people will make the street safer, the vending less intrusive and easier to regulate, and the neighborhood a more pleasant place to live, work and shop. They point to Schaller’s study of Prince Street, which showed only 8 percent of people surveyed arrive there in a private car and 80 percent perceive the street as being overcrowded.
The Schaller Consulting study also found that “by a ratio of five-to-one, expanding pedestrian space would attract people to come to Prince Street more often, even if that meant taking away space to park. Results are almost identical for visitors and those who work or live in the area.”
Many of the SoHo residents who oppose the Prince Street pilot program object for precisely that reason. They do not want more were people on their neighborhood streets. Many point to what Sweeney describes as the “garbage, traffic congestion and crowds of strolling tourists who think they own the street and stare at the residents in their windows like they are curiosities” brought annually by the Feast of San Gennaro, which runs for 11 days on neighboring Mulberry Street. “We don’t like tourists,” Sweeney said.
For its part, the transportation department has insisted that the temporary closure will not turn Prince Street into a permanent street fair. Representatives showed a slide at the Community Board meeting emphasizing “no stalls, no food kiosks, games or rides,” and promised to address concerns about the street vendors by increasing enforcement. Many at the meeting, though, remained skeptical.
Ethan Kent, a vice president at the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit group that works with cities all over the world to create engaging streets and public spaces that serve communities, said, “If I thought that temporary closures meant a street fair every Sunday, I wouldn’t want it either, but that’s just not the case. There are ways to make streets work for everyone, but you have to plan and manage. The best way to prevent a neighborhood from changing for the worse is planning for the best.”
Kent, who has consulted on pedestrian projects from Hong Kong to Poughkeepsie, emphasized the importance of involving all the stakeholders as early as possible in any planning project. “Maybe if the DOT had gotten some businesses on board and partnered them with the supportive residents and then asked, ‘what can make this street work better for you?’ there would have been a different outcome. I’m sure all the naysayers weren’t in favor of speeding cars and honking horns and exhaust fumes, but were afraid of a plan they had no part in,” he said in response to the controversy in SoHo
Consulting The Community
“Planning” and “community involvement” have become buzzwords in the wake of all that has happened in SoHo. On both sides of the debate, people point to the need for community involvement in the planning of any temporary street closure. Shirley Secunda, a retired urban planner and chair of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, who supports the street closing plan said, of the administration “they came before us with a fully developed program ( before people had a chance to give input and even if it’s a good plan ( that’s a limitation right there. If they gave us more time we could have worked with them to make sure it was as good as it could be for everyone.”
Sweeney, more colorfully concurred saying, “The process was so skewed and plutocratic and autocratic. The DOT tried to bulldoze SoHo.”
And so despite their differences, the two camps of SoHo residents fighting over 14 summer Sundays on Prince Street agreed on the need for an open process. Community Board 2, at the behest of many area residents, eventually passed a resolution declining the transportation department’s proposal that reflects as much. It reads: “CB2 also appreciates DOT’s willingness to monitor and modify this test project based on community criteria and input and to sunset it if not affirmatively reviewed, but regrets the absence in this case of a true community-based process in which the neighborhood has been consulted from the start about its problems, concerns and improvement ideas.”
For now the future of the Prince Street plan is murky. Now that the Communty Board has come out against it, the transportation department seems disinclined to go ahead with it in its current form. But the idea of street closings remains very much alive. Some people in SoHo would still like to see pedestrian imporvements in the area, and the department, without specifying any locations, confirmed that it is looking at similar proposals in different neighborhoods around the city.
Its statement about Prince Street implies that the department has learned a bit from what happened: “We have listened to the concerns voiced by SoHo residents and will find ways to address our shared concerns about traffic, street vendors, and congestion,” said department spokesman Seth Solomonow. For their sake, and for the future of temporary street closures, that seems like a sensible course of action.
Graham Beck is the managing editor of StreetBeat, the biweekly newsletter of Transportation Alternatives and a writer. He lives in Brooklyn.