Volume 80, Number 43 | March 24 - 30, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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The city’s first pop-up cafe, last year on Pearl St. in the Financial District.

People popping off about new pop-up cafes; But others like them

By Aline Reynolds

A program for a new type of seasonal outdoor cafe is getting mixed reviews in Soho and Greenwich Village.

The city’s Department of Transportation is launching a pilot program of so-called pop-up cafes — curbside seating and planting spaces financed by local businesses — after a successful trial cafe in the Financial District last summer. The pop-up cafes are modeled after what are known as “parklets” in San Francisco, as well as outdoor cafes found in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Florence, Italy.

“By offering greenery and temporary seating, they are especially beneficial to streets and neighborhoods that may lack trees or open space,” explains a D.O.T. handout describing the program. The quirky cafe spaces can also help alleviate sidewalk congestion by carving out spots for pedestrians to rest, read or chat with friends.

Estimated to cost in the ballpark of $10,000 each, the pop-up cafes will be open from May 1 to Oct. 15 this and next year. Smoking and alcohol are prohibited in the designated areas, and, while the 6-foot-wide wooden platforms are set up along the frontages of the restaurants that sponsor them, they are meant for the public at large.

Pop-up cafes are ideal resting spots for cramped neighborhoods like Soho, according to Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee.

“This is mainly a way to create some public space where there isn’t a lot of space,” he said.

“We’ve got room for 50 cars to park on our block, but we don’t have room for one little sidewalk cafe,” chimed in Dutton’s wife, Shea Hovey, another pop-up proponent.

Residents opposed to the program, however, view the pop-ups as the same thing as sidewalk cafes, which they are not, at least according to D.O.T. and advocates.

“It’s outdoor dining — let’s call it what it is,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance and also a C.B. 2 member. “It’s a commercial use incompatible with residential use.”

Sidewalk cafes, which are widespread throughout Board 2, Sweeney noted, are prohibited in Soho due to the neighborhood’s manufacturing zoning.

The spirit of the ban is to outlaw these type of commercial outdoor venues, according to Sigrid Burton, another member of the board’s Traffic and Transportation Committee.

Sweeney, Burton and dozens of residents from Soho, Noho, Little Italy and Greenwich Village appeared at last week’s Transportation and Traffic Committee meeting to object to the program.

Doris Diether, a veteran C.B. 2 member, called the idea “ridiculous.”

“It’s really not going to be a great place to sit and eat,” she said. The cafes along MacDougal St. are unneeded, she and others believe, due to their proximity to Washington Square Park.

Crosby St., meanwhile, where Housing Works Bookstore Cafe has applied for a pop-up cafe, is too narrow to accommodate outdoor seating, Diether contended.

Regarding safety, Diether questioned the visibility of the barriers that would separate the streets and cafes.

“A car coming down the street isn’t going to expect people sitting on the street,” she said. And the cafe spaces’ users, Diether added, won’t be pleased with cars whizzing right by them.

Local restaurants and cafes that have applied for the pop-ups view them as experiments as much as D.O.T. does.

“Direct revenue from pop-up cafes is something I’m not quite sure about,” said Vittorio Antonini, owner of La Lanterna restaurant and wine bar, at 129 MacDougal St., near W. Third St.

The restaurant, which would partner with the adjacent Tea Spot to construct a 60-foot-long pop-up cafe, is taking a “wait-and-see” approach, according to its owner.

“There are pros and cons to doing it, but it’s something I’m willing to do on a trial basis,” said Antonini.

“It’s been made too much of a big issue for what it all is,” said Suzie Lupert, executive director of Housing Works, which provides housing for homeless people with H.I.V./AIDS and also runs a needle-exchange service for IV drug users.

“I just want the community to decide and to move on from there,” Lupert said.

Olivier Arizzi, brand marketing manager for Pain Quotidien, which has applied for a pop-up cafe on W. Eighth St. at Fifth Ave., hopes to construct a space equipped with seven tables, with four chairs apiece.

“The nice weather is coming out, and we just want to provide extra service to all our guests so they can enjoy our products we’re offering outside,” he said.

The chain, Arizzi added, would be willing to hire extra servers to cover the maintenance of the cafe. The owner hopes they’ll make profits from the extra seating, realizing, though, that there is no certainty.

“We want to see how it’s doing over one year,” Arizzi said, “and make a decision if we want to repeat it or not.”

Dean Montgomery, a D.O.T. spokesperson, said C.B. 2 has veto power over every restaurant’s application.

“The only way any application is going forward is if the board votes on it,” he assured.

C.B. 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee voted for six out of the seven applications in its district, which now await the approval of C.B. 2’s full board meeting on Thursday evening March 22. While D.O.T. suggested the pop-up cafes close at midnight and 1 a.m. on weekdays and weekends, respectively, the committee recommended they close at 9 p.m. every evening.

Last August, D.O.T. launched its first pop-up cafe, on Pearl St. in the Financial District, after Bombay restaurant and FIKA espresso bar approached the city and the Downtown Alliance business improvement district with a request for outdoor public seating.

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