Restaurateurs on Reopening: Cut Red Tape for Sidewalk Cafe Permits

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Restaurant owners, already facing an existential crisis during the pandemic to stay afloat, are lobbying the city to ease up on granting sidewalk cafe permits, which currently involves a sea of bureaucratic red tape and upwards of $100,000 to get.

The effort comes as city and state government looks to partially re-open businesses with COVID cases flattening out, and this will likely include restaurants, in which sidewalk cafes present more room for safe distancing.

“We want to serve our community as safely as possible, protect our staff and get this economy back on its feet while keeping the curve flat,” said Charlotta Janssen, who owns the French Restaurant, Chez Oskar, at 310 Malcolm X Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

Photo from the Chez Oskar Instagram page.

Janssen made a shift from her initial years-long fight to acquire a sidewalk café permit to engage fellow restaurant owners with her online petition that’s up to almost 400 signatures.

Some of the items in the petition ask for comprehensive legislation for business vouchers and third-party delivery platform caps, which there has been some headway on. 

However, the main point of the petition is the call for emergency sidewalk café permits that would expand access to outdoor and street space for small business commerce while also adhering to social distancing rules for customers. 

Mirei Yanagawa, along with husband Tatsumi, runs Tradroom on 266 Malcolm X Boulevard. Yanagawa negotiated down her delivery costs directly with platforms, like Caviar, so they could keep operating during the health pandemic. Her’s is one in a coalition of restaurants in the area that want sidewalk permits. 

“It’d be a great benefit for us because not everyone wants to be inside of a restaurant,” said Yanagawa. “Now the license should be open to everybody.”

According to Edward Amador, who used to work on policy in City Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr.’s (D-Bed-Stuy, Northern Crown Heights) office, and now works for the government relations firm, Bolton-St. Johns, the zoning area that the restaurant and other local business owners sit-in was rezoned in 2009 using software that did not permit for commercial overlays of less than 100 feet.

A commercial overlay is defined as an area within residential zoning that allows for commercial use or mixed-use buildings in the city. “So if she [Janssen] got rezoned right now with the 100-foot overlay, it would impact maybe two or three of her neighbors who would then have commercial zoning on their sidewalk,” said Amador. 

Before the crisis, Amador said, the city couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t impact the taxes or valuation of those properties, which is a unique problem across different localities. 

City Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr

Cornegy responded that the idea of emergency sidewalk café permits should be among the options seriously considered as government works through the best policies to help restaurants succeed at a uniquely difficult moment. 

“Along with input from colleagues, community boards, and city agencies, our decision making needs to be aware of the challenge these small businesses face and the ways city policy can best support public health,” said Cornegy.

DCP Spokesperson Melissa Grace said the agency is working with the Department Of Transportation and Small Business Services as well as other agencies to examine potential temporary measures to use public space more flexibly and support restaurants and other small businesses in their efforts to safely reopen.

Also on board is City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan).

“The City Council is exploring different alternatives to help restaurants and retail shops. We know we are going to have to be creative, and we’ll work with all the affected parties to find solutions,” said a spokesperson from Johnson’s office.

In the meantime, local restaurant owners continue to worry about what the future will hold. 

“We didn’t get any help. None of us got PPEs [personal protective equipment], we were just left out hung to dry and hung to die you know,” said Janssen, tearily talking about the impact COVID-19 has had on her business. “All I am asking for is real tools to work in partnership to get back on our feet together.”