Volume 76, Number 13 | August 16 - 22, 2006

Get back Jack, neighbors say, opposing sidewalk cafe

By Janet Kwon

Though Jack at 80 University Pl. has been characterized as a bistro, a French-cuisine restaurant or a friendly Sunday brunch spot, it should not be one with a sidewalk cafe, based on a unanimous vote by the City Council Zoning and Franchising Subcommittee. The subcommittee this week declined Jack’s application for a permit for an outdoor, unenclosed dining area.

The nine-member subcommittee, chaired by Councilmember Tony Avella, held a hearing Monday morning Aug. 14 at which Jack’s application drew a large crowd of supporters as well as opponents. A total of 47 persons testified, which Avella estimated was about equal on both sides of the issue.

Before coming before the City Council, Jack’s sidewalk cafe application had to be submitted to Community Board 2. While the application for a two-year, 14-table, 28-seat unenclosed sidewalk cafe area was passed by C.B. 2’s Sidewalks, Public Facilities and Public Access Committee at its June meeting by a 3-2 vote, the full board of C.B. 2 later recommended denial of the application.

At Monday’s Council meeting, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, whose district includes Jack, gave a likely explanation as to why the decisions differed at the committee and full board levels.

“That committee does have a lot of restaurant owners,” Mendez said, referring to C.B. 2’s Sidewalks Committee. Mendez also noted C.B. 2’s de facto moratorium on sidewalk cafe approvals on University Pl. for the past 30 years. This virtual moratorium and Mendez’s opposition to the permit were the key points Avella stressed when he voiced his opinion to deny the permit and encouraged his fellow subcommittee members to do the same.

Julie Weprin, who opened Jack about six months ago, felt that obtaining the sidewalk cafe permit would be “cut and dry,” since zoning regulations in the area around Jack allows unenclosed sidewalk cafes.

“I was dismayed by the results,” Weprin said, in a phone interview after the hearing. “I don’t understand the de facto moratorium — there’s either a zoning regulation or there’s not…I’m sorry to hear that there’s a secret unwritten policy somewhere.”

“We’ve complied with all the regulations, and we have support of hundreds of our neighbors. I really don’t understand it,” she said.

In preparation for the hearing, Weprin gathered 530 signatures and 100 letters in support of an outdoor dining area for Jack. Of these supporters, she said, about two-thirds were Village residents with the rest from elsewhere in Manhattan and beyond.

Although these numbers did make an impression on the subcommittee in showing that Jack has a loyal following, Avella emphasized that not all of them were local supporters.

“There is nothing more local than a sidewalk cafe application,” Avella noted.

Indeed, the voices of the residents were heard at the meeting — both for and against an unenclosed cafe area for Weprin’s establishment.

“It will create an inviting and warm atmosphere,” said Todd McCormick, who lives across the street from the restaurant. “I don’t know why they don’t want someone to sit outside and enjoy a meal,” he said, shrugging.

“It’s not just about the bottom line for her,” McCormick said, adding that Weprin was born and raised in the neighborhood. He added that he sometimes dines twice a day at Jack.

Another Jack patron, Jane Menzi, who has lived on E. 10th St. a block away from the location for 33 years, said, “It will provide a lovely ambience, restore some of the feeling of the old, casual, informal elegance that the Village is known for.”

However, this unique Village quality that Menzi wants to see by way of an outdoors cafe is precisely what Stanley Rosenberg wants to maintain — but by not allowing outdoor cafes.

“I’m certainly not against sidewalk cafes…but certain neighborhoods, which are unique, should not have them,” said Rosenberg, president of the 12th and 14th Sts. Block Association.

“It’s not any bit personal. What I’m concerned about Jack’s is that it’s not appropriate for University Pl., which hasn’t had a new sidewalk cafe since 30 years ago. The community is most adamant about not having more sidewalk cafes on University Pl.”

“We have in University Pl. a unique kind of quality,” Rosenberg said. “It’s not busy, steaming, touristy, noisy. It’s quiet. Now, introduce one sidewalk cafe with the potential for 20 more. It will stimulate all the other storeowners and the entire character of University Pl. will change.”

This fear of surrounding restaurants or bars following the lead of Jack if it were to get a sidewalk cafe was also a major concern addressed by Mendez.

“It would open a floodgate” for other businesses to apply for sidewalk cafe permits, she said. Mendez said unenclosed dining areas would “change the character” of University Pl.

Echoed Sugar Barry, president of the E. 10th St. Block Association, “I don’t want to see a Gansevoort-like atmosphere. Even if the restaurateur has the best intentions in the world, and I believe Julie does, the need is not there.”

Weprin, however, feels that this fear of sidewalk cafe proliferation is unfounded.

“The requirements for sidewalk cafes were streamlined in 2003, and nobody applied [on University Pl.],” Weprin claimed. She also said that the potential number of 20 establishments that could possibly apply for a sidewalk cafe is an exaggeration. She said, in reality, only about six on University Pl. are eligible.

The idea of an enclosed sidewalk dining area was suggested at the hearing, but Weprin didn’t budge.

“It’s not what my customers want,” she said of an enclosed cafe. “It’s just not the same thing.

“Summer’s hard enough in this area — so many people go out of town,” she added. “At least, if I had the opportunity to offer a chance for people to sit outside and enjoy the outdoors, it would help. I need this cafe for my business to succeed,” she said.

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