Summer on the Seine may soon be just around the corner from the Hudson. In November, the Department of City Planning announced plans to introduce a new breed of sidewalk café on hundreds of Manhattan’s café-wary streets. As early as summer, the new Parisian-like outdoor café, the so-called “mini-café,” could crop up in many of the borough’s neighborhoods.
In a move to gain community support, the D.C.P. sent its plan-which would permit the diminutive cafés only on select Manhattan streets-to Borough President C. Virginia Fields and to community boards affected by the proposal. Among those reviewing the plan is Community Board 4, whose Clinton and Chelsea neighborhoods are home to prospective locations for the new cafés. At their Jan. 7 meeting, the board voted unanimously to send a letter of endorsement to the D.C.P. chair, Amanda M. Burden. The following night, Community Board 5 followed suit with a similar vote of confidence.
However, not all of the boards are so enthusiastic. Board 8, for example, voted at its Jan. 14 meeting to delay action until its February session, citing concerns about noise, smoking and congestion.
Spearheaded by Ms. Burden, the plan (which calls for a new classification of zoning for open-air cafés of reduced proportions-only one four-and-a-half-foot-wide row of tables compared to the current setup, which occupies half the width of the sidewalk) has been in the works since the start of the Bloomberg administration. “I thought about it for about 10 years,” Ms. Burden told The Observer , noting that a disproportionate number of the city’s sidewalk cafés are in the outer boroughs. “It was something that I wanted to do immediately after I was appointed.” A 1979 zoning law permits sidewalk cafés only in commercial and manufacturing neighborhoods, excluding most Manhattan restaurants from operating these highly coveted cafés. The new law, which is slated to reach the City Council for a vote by the spring, will make many of Manhattan’s restaurants far more visible-and profitable-during the summer months.
If the new zoning goes into effect, neighborhoods may begin to see outdoor cafés along the entire stretch of Madison Avenue from the Flatiron district to East Harlem, in midtown from 38th Street to 59th Street between Third and Eighth avenues, on West Broadway in Soho, in Union Square, on upper Park and Lexington avenues, on portions of 14th and 23rd streets, on the Lower East Side and in the East Village.
All restaurants-including those which have been running sidewalk cafés without permits-may submit a permit application to the neighborhood community board and then to the city. The measure would not affect the 700 bars and restaurants in other areas that currently have larger cafés.
Part of the broad community support comes from the D.C.P.’s recent cooperation with the Department of Consumer Affairs to crack down on restaurant owners who violate existing sidewalk-café laws. Three violations result in a month-long closure, a death knell for any city restaurant.
Fields has yet to make an official statement, but appears to be leaning in favor of the proposal. “In terms of economic development, it is a good thing,” said her spokesman, Dan Willson. “We need to focus on jobs in Manhattan, and we think this would help.”
“Sidewalk cafés add something social and safe to a community,” said Joshua David, co-chair of Board 4’s transportation-planning committee, which drafted the letter of endorsement. “Those positive qualities have to be balanced against the need for pedestrians to be able to move on a crowded sidewalk. You want to make sure that sufficient pedestrian mobility will be preserved.”
In accordance with Mr. David’s reservations, Board 4 urged the city to restrict sidewalk cafés on a swath of Eighth Avenue between 50th and 58th streets, citing obstructions caused by subway gratings, heavy pedestrian traffic, sidewalk markings and narrow streets.
Board 5 passed a similar resolution on Jan. 8, specifying that eight feet of walking space should remain available for pedestrian traffic and that all street-café applications should be brought to the board for approval.
Ms. Burden addressed these concerns: “[The cafés] are just one table wide; they really hug the side of the building,” she said. “Restaurants have to meet all sorts of clearance requirements. They must have a full eight-foot clearance path. It’s about siting them carefully, with adequate space.”
With the community’s blessing, the city seems poised for the new café invasion. “I think outdoor cafés are one of the most wonderful ways to enjoy New York City,” said Ms. Burden. “They lend vitality to the street life and provide special pleasure and urban amenity to the city.”
Not in My Back Yard!
Garden Extensions Under Scrutiny
Tucked behind scores of the city’s brownstones and townhouses, rear yards provide oases of serenity and quiet. When they were originally conceived, the yards-mandated by a city zoning resolution-were intended to provide residents with unbroken, block-long swaths of green. But thanks to a decades-old clause written into the resolution and intended to provide “community facilities” for the neighborhood, permits to build extensions into the lots can be granted under special circumstances. In the measure’s wake, many of the swaths were broken up by such extensions. Now, some city residents have argued that the laws are antiquated and in need of a major overhaul.
One unintended consequence of the extension clause became apparent at the Jan. 14 meeting of Community Board 6, when the owners of an East 18th Street residence pleaded for the board’s support for a variance to their landmarked, Italianate-style rowhouse. The owners would like to convert the one-story extension in their rear yard, a former doctor’s office, to residential use. Rebecca G. Haile, one of the owners, told the board that when she and her husband purchased the property, they were misled by a real-estate agent into thinking that there would be no obstacle to converting the structure to residential use when the doctors moved out. Ms. Haile told the board that she needed the extra space because she and her husband are starting a family.
Under current zoning law, most residential lots are required to have a rear yard of at least 30 feet in order to provide light and space to city dwellers. But in 1961, the law was amended to allow everything from doctors’ offices to monasteries, from day-care centers to various nonprofits, to build extensions in the rear yards of residential buildings all the way to the property line, so long as the addition is no more than 23 feet high. According to Kenneth Bergin of the Department of City Planning, the exemption was designed to give space to businesses that were expected to service the immediate community, and to provide space for tax-exempt nonprofits on land that was already on the city’s tax rolls.
A good number of the extensions in question are former doctors’ offices. When the law was originally conceived in 1960, “doctors typically lived in the neighborhood where they served their clients,” Mr. Bergin said. But given what some see as an increasing trend for doctors to close their private practices and become part of vast H.M.O. networks, the Department of City Planning and the City Council Land Use Committee are pushing a zoning-law resolution that would close up this loophole and prohibit certain extensions.
There were voices of support for the proposal. “We’d certainly like to stop any rear-yard intrusions,” said public board member Irene Peveri, speaking to The Observer . Ms. Peveri has worked with the Coalition for Community Facility Reform and the East Side Rezoning Alliance to reform the community-facilities zoning exemption. She supports the proposed resolution but feels that it could be strengthened. “For the communities that I’ve dealt with, any rear-yard intrusion is objectionable, including those by schools and group homes. It breaks up the continuity of a rear-yard garden or a continuous open space,” she said. The Department of City Planning’s community-facilities proposal draft explicitly calls for the termination of the exemption for libraries, museums, nonprofit institutions, nursing homes, group homes and doctors’ offices. (Schools, day-care centers, houses of worship, colleges, universities, hospitals and related facilities would not be affected by the zoning-law changes.)
An environmental-impact statement is currently being prepared for the proposed zoning changes; upon its completion, it will be reviewed by the city’s community and borough boards and the borough presidents. A public hearing on the proposal will then be scheduled before it heads to the City Council for a vote.
While Board 6 is in favor of the D.C.P.’s proposed changes, it still had on hand the task of reviewing the rowhouse owners’ variance request. While the majority of the board members supported the owners-whose plea was bolstered by neighborhood residents testifying on their behalf-several members expressed reservations about setting a precedent for future conversions. The board eventually voted in favor of a resolution supporting the request, noting that the city had no authority to decree the demolition of the structure and that the only other option left to the owners would be to rent it out again-a measure that nobody present was eager to embrace. The building owners’ request will next be heard by the Board of Standards and Appeals, which is expected to grant the variance.
In Union Square
In a city where the term luger is apt to be greeted with “Sure, I’m in the mood for a T-bone,” it’s anybody’s guess how Manhattan’s denizens will react when a couple of medal-winning Olympians invite the public to have a go at one of the world’s more esoteric sports. Community Board 5, however, is certain that the response will be positive. At its Jan. 8 meeting, the board unanimously approved the Department of Parks and Recreation’s application to hold a luge clinic on Jan. 29 at Union Square Park.
The clinic is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s three-week-long “Cool New York” festivities, which began Jan. 10. Held last year in Van Cortlandt and Prospect parks, the luge event attracted over 200 spectators.
Although the instructors, Chris Thorpe and Gordy Sheer, are both Olympians, there’s no reason for amateurs to be deterred. The thin-skinned and the faint-at-heart should take note that, according to the event application, “Hot chocolate will be served.” Also, while professional lugers typically zip down mile-long tracks at lethal speeds, the Union Square course will measure only 35 feet.
New York City has storied attachments to sports like baseball and basketball, but very little connection to the luge. In fact, amidst the excitement of the Winter Games a couple of years ago, Mayor Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, Daniel Doctoroff, attempted to luge on a ramp that had been set up on the steps of City Hall. The Times reported, “He went farther than expected, and hit a curb across the way.”
In their 12 seasons as partners, Messrs. Thorpe and Sheer have done much better, “sliding” to 28 international medals. Among other accomplishments, the pair claimed silver medals at both the 1998 Games and the World Championships.
Mr. Sheer summed up the unique, anomalous nature of the event (which is free of charge and open to all) when he told The Observer , “It’s a nice opportunity to put your hands on a sport that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to.” This is laughably true, considering there are only two luge tracks in the U.S.-one in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the other in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Although the idea of speeding along on a luge is frightening to some, Jon Lundin, spokesman for the U.S. Luge team, said there’s no cause for alarm.
“We will instruct each of the participants on how to start and stop the sled. Luge is actually a very safe sport. Even though professionals exceed 90 miles per hour, it’s actually in the top third of all the safest sports worldwide.”
Philip Beer, the co-chair of Board 5’s parks committee, echoed the sentiment: “No, [I have] absolutely no reservations. What better time, what better place, than Union Square?”
– Elon R. Green
Jan. 21: Board 8, Lenox Hill Hospital, 131 East 76th Street, Einhorn Auditorium, 7 p.m., 212-758-4340.
Jan. 22: Board 2, N.Y.U. Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South, Room 914, 6:30 p.m., 212-979-2272.
Jan. 27: Board 3, P.S. 20, 166 Essex Street, 6:30 p.m., 212-533-5300; Board 12, Mt. Sinai Jewish Center, 135 Bennett Avenue, 7 p.m., 212-568-8500.