On Sunday, I wrote about Local, a coffee shop in SoHo that transformed its sidewalk space and two parking spots into an outdoor seating area, with great results. In the interest of spreading the word and getting more businesses around New York involved, here's some more information on the new Seasonal Curbside Seating program.
A Growing Program
The project was launched in 2010 with just two restaurants participating; Bombay's and Fika shared outdoor tables on Pearl St. The initial success encouraged the Department of Transportation (DOT) to call for applications from interested businesses, mostly cafes and restaurants.
In 2011, three more locations were approved: Local on Sullivan St, Le Pain Quotidien on 3rd Ave and Ecopolis in Brooklyn. According to the DOT's evaluation report, each site was a big success: average occupancy rates ranged from 33% to 55%. At peak hours, they jumped to between 90% and 122%.
As you would expect from a large city bureaucracy, installing the seating is something of a long process: Liz Walker of Local called the contract "daunting." The business pays for everything, and the seating is public space- so it's not reserved for paying customers.
There are questions of liability and costs of insurance, design, and building the seating platforms, and each comes with its own set of rules and regulations. I love that the DOT notes: "Each platform should be finished with quality materials, preferably using recycled or sustainably harvested products," and "the platform must include plantings."
Of course, not every location will be approved by the DOT. Large streets, heavy traffic, fire hydrants and bus stops can all put the kibosh on replacing parking with seating.
How to Make It Work
Despite all this, Walker says, "they [the City] really want to make it work." For Local, more criticism of the idea came from the Community Board, which has final say on approval, than the DOT. Those you need on your side, Walker notes, "are the people who live above you and around you." A free place to sit, enjoy some coffee, and converse with neighbors is vital to a strong community, and is too often lacking in space-crunch cities like New York.
So if you're a NYC business-owner, look into the regulations and see if you can apply, and expand your business while improving your neighborhood. If you're just a resident or visitor, patronize these businesses and help support a great program. And if you live elsewhere, see if you can't make something like this happen in your city.