Taking It To The Streets

The NYC Council and Our Community Board’s Current Answer to Recovery Is Taking It To The Streets. Update 5/30/20

Plaza in Rome-Taking it to the streetsThere is about to be a lot of discussion about how much street space will be commandeered for recovery; closing roadbeds for recreational activity and expanding sidewalk cafes across sidewalks and into roadbeds.  Very Roman!  Except Italy closed them down throughout the pandemic and struggles with management now.  So, maybe we can do better.

On May 29th NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Council Member Carlina Rivera, and Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, Andrew Rigie gathered with the Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, The Hudson Square BID, the Meatpacking BID and the NoHoNYC BID and over 230 other participants to discuss the City Council’s proposed legislation for Socially Distanced Dining.  The purpose was to introduce pending NYC Council Legislation (proposed legislation here) that would streamline the process for giving restaurants use of public open space as they attempt recovery.

Next week (Thurs., 6/4  @ 6:30 PM) CB#2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee meets again to deliberate the feasibility of closing more vehicular traffic on Greenwich Village/SoHo/NoHo blocks to increase recreational space.

The convergence of both programs on fast-track presents some very real obstacles to overcome:  Managing prospective diners among families wishing for their children’s recreational freedom is going to be tough; preventing outdoor strollers from taking over restaurant chairs and benches will need full time diplomacy and oversight; bouncing balls among tables covered with food; and perhaps most important – managing density, face masques.

Open Streets

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is working on a phased recovery plan, and reaching out to gauge community interest in and capacity to manage a pedestrianized street in the coming weeks. Open Streets are simple closures of streets to vehicles and do not feature any programming, seating, or other elements that might encourage gathering.  These closures may not be implemented on a bus, truck, or emergency route. Limited access to the street shall be maintained to allow for essential deliveries, emergency needs, and/or to retrieve a parked vehicle. All proposals must be approved by DOT, NYPD, FDNY, and other city agencies as applicable before they can be implemented.

After the push back on NYPD enforcement on early-closed streets, The Dept of Transportation has, once again, decided that the responsibility should rest on community organizations.  Here’s their list of requirements:

  1. Proposing organizations must have strong ties to the community and demonstrate their capacity to manage the Open Street by providing a staffing plan.
  2. Closure schedules should take use of the street for deliveries etc. into consideration, however closures of 6 hours or longer are encouraged.
  3. Length and duration of closure will be determined in partnership with NYCDOT.
  4. Barriers will need to be moveable to ensure emergency vehicles, essential deliveries, and access-a-ride can shift them to enter a given block and replace when they are done. However, staffed barriers are preferable.
  5. Cross streets must remain open.

Partners facilitating Open Streets will be expected to:

  1. Place and remove barriers at the start and end of the closure daily  (We have just been informed that some NYPD Precincts will assist with barriers)
  2. Monitor the closure throughout the day and report issues to DOT/NYPD
  3. Provide access for local vehicles that may need to enter/exit the closure
  4. Post and replenish signage mandating social distancing and slow vehicular travel speeds
  5. Regularly promote hours, guidelines etc, to local stakeholders and the community

City provided elements include:

  1. Technical assistance in determining the location and operation of the Open Street
  2. Permitting, review, and approval
  3. Language for signage and other messaging regarding the Open Street
  4. Barricades to block of streets where possible  (NYPD Barricades may now be used)
  5. No funding is provided to partners for this program

So, once again, as in the case of Plaza Partners, DOT is providing minimal support for the closure, the maintenance, or the security of this program and requires a great deal of extraordinary coordination with business deliveries, sanitation, emergency services.  For NoHo with all its institutions closed; larger hotels and retailers and gyms closed and nearly 40% of its residents emigrated, these obligations are way beyond voluntary organizational capacity or budget.  So, we are given to understand the Business Improvement Districts are interested in stepping up.  They do have budgets and employees – at least for the near-term or until City finances are unable to support them; but their mandate is BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT.

We aren’t at all opposed to opening streets – perhaps on weekends from Noon to 6pm but finding and coordinating volunteers and supplies, maintaining safe social interaction practices is a severe impediment not easily justified by the recreational beneift of 6-12 hours of street fun when our population is absent.

Socially Distanced Dining

We sorely miss our restaurants – distinctive, fully vetted, unusually attuned to our neighborhood.  We should be as cooperative as possible as they search for a way to survive.

But the biggest impediment is density.  First, it is the nature of restaurants and bars to cluster.  Second, most buildings with existing sidewalk cafe’s are 20′ wide with 12-15′ of sidewalk – 8′ of which is supposed to accommodate pedestrian passage.  That’s roughly 160 square feet of available outside space…or room for four socially distanced tables for two. Assuming the establishment is on a street that can include an additional 20′ X 8′ cafe space in the roadbed there’s potential for another four tables for two.  For most restaurateurs, especially those without Public Assembly Permits (70 or fewer seats) this benefit isn’t going to offset the 50% reduction in interior patron space.

So then, as a NoHo restaurateur has sugggest, perhaps restaurants could commandeer the sidewalk space of a next door retailer or a vacant storefront after business hours.  That could work unless you have four restaurants on the block all hoping to do the same thing.  The proposed legislation itemizes parks, plazas and possibly parking lots could be commandeered for offsite locations as well.

There is also the matter of clear path for service, safe distancing for service workers, managing patrons in an expanded adhoc open air environment, liquor service, etc.

Back to the Roman analogy…restaurants face large vehicle-free plazas.  They are also tightly placed next to each other, provide umbrellas or canapies for rain, heating lamps for chill and each restaurant is militant about not encroaching on their neighbor or losing a patron to the next guy.  For an example closer to home, think the Mulberry St. Mall or the San Genaro Festival.

There’s a lot to work out on this one.  And everyone is going to have to cooperate to make it happen.

Here are some more opinions on the subject:

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