Private Café, Public Space

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On the corner of West 81st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, the restaurant Monsoon has stood empty since 2005—and so has its enclosed sidewalk café. While passersby didn’t particularly notice the large structure jutting out into the sidewalk—it runs parallel to other outdoor cafés, though it remains the only permanent one—many residents have complained that the large, red painted construct, with its papered up windows and Department of Buildings stickers all over the door, is an eyesore. Beyond that, the communal space taken up by the building’s now defunct sidewalk café has been the subject of a greater debate: What do you do with an unused, enclosed structure that encroaches on public property?

“The issue is to try and come up with some policy that’s good for the restaurant and the neighborhood,” said Council Member Gale Brewer. “They are taking up public space. So, if you disappear as a restaurant, so should the enclosed café.”

The Department of Buildings is investigating illegal advertising on the enclosed sidewalk café of the former Penang restaurant, on West 71st Street and Columbus Avenue. Photo by Linnea Covington

The Department of Buildings is investigating illegal advertising on the enclosed sidewalk café of the former Penang restaurant, on West 71st Street and Columbus Avenue. Photo by Linnea Covington

Abandoned enclosed cafés not only look messy and run down but some of them also appear downright gaudy. On the corner of West 71st Street and Columbus Avenue stands the old home of the Malaysian restaurant Penang, which relocated down the street. The old building still hosts the restaurant’s built-in sidewalk café. But instead of sitting there completely useless like Monsoon, the space is being used to advertise for Custo Barcelona shops in SoHo. The trendy clothing store planned to open in that spot until the deal fell through, but it hasn’t removed its ads. This does not bode well with the locals.

“It’s hideous,” said Ashley Berner, a neighborhood resident. “But it’s less pornographic then the last one.”

(Previous ads featured close to naked models, but now the figures wear neon clothes.)

The enclosed café has also limited pedestrian space to the width of a doublewide stroller. A complaint was made to the Department of Buildings on May 23, 2008. Carly Sullivan, a spokesperson for the department, said that this type of advertising is not permitted in this district and that the agency is investigating the illegal ads.

The building is owned by Dalmau Equities, but is managed by Josh Strauss of Robert K. Futterman & Associates. Strauss did not return calls for comment.

“It’s unsightly and it’s jutting out very far into the sidewalk. We would like to see it operating or come down,” said Andrew Albert, co-chair of Board 7’s transport committee.

It’s not easy to get a permit for a sidewalk café. Owners must apply through the Department of Consumer Affairs, which in turn obtains approval from the Department of Transportation. Next, the local Community Board reviews the application and gives consent before the City Council can give final approval.

While getting a permit for enclosed café isn’t harder to obtain than a normal sidewalk café, the actual café is harder to get rid of. This is why both Board 7 and Brewer want to revise the rules for these types of structures. The discussion has focused on how long the space can be in operation and who maintains responsibility if the business should fail or move.

“We are trying to find a balance in helping the building owner to find a new tenant to use that space for a restaurant,” said Jesse Bodine, Brewer’s director of constituent services and policy. “We don’t want them tearing them down and bringing them back up in four months. That doesn’t help anybody.”

Despite the Monsoon and Penang problem spots, Board 7 has signed off on 15 enclosed spaces since 2008.

“The reason we keep approving these [enclosed] cafés is because the board felt it’s unfair to single out one café for disapproval since we don’t have new regulations,” said Penny Ryan, Board 7’s district manager. “The board wants to have a uniform policy from the city that affects all outdoor cafés.”

What exactly that uniform policy might entail includes shorter time limits for the permits, making the landlord responsible for the café and building less permanent structures. After sending a letter to the Department of Transportation and Department of Consumer Affairs about these issues, Brewer met with the mayor’s office a few weeks ago to discuss what should happen.

“These questions aren’t answered,” she said, “but they have been identified.”

A potential model, Brewer said, can found on West 58th Street and 10th Avenue at The Greek Kitchen. Board 4 just approved an enclosed café there, which has yet to be built, on the stipulation that the owners won’t use stone and that if the restaurant goes, so does the café.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” Brewer said. “We want our small business to do well, but we don’t want to be taken advantage of if they are gone.”

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