NYC Sidewalk Cafes Capture City Attention for Zoning Violations

Many urban restaurateurs have latched onto the popular concept of the sidewalk cafe, offering street side seating for customers to sip their lattes or dine al fresco as they watch the masses pass.

But the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs isn’t quite so laissez-faire about the whole thing. Our Manhattan restaurant lawyers have learned that the city has fired off letters warning 17 popular sidewalk cafes that their days are numbered – unless they can prove they aren’t violating city zoning ordinances.

Specifically, the businesses were given 100 business days, starting May 1, to do one of three things:

  • Conduct a certified land survey showing that they are operating on private property, and not on a city street;
  • File for a zoning exemption;
  • Surrender their permit and cease sidewalk operations.

Some of these locations have been in business for upwards of two decades, and they’ve become wildly popular. They include Sushi Choshi, Friend of the Farmer and Sant Ambroeus and more.

Owners are panicked and diners are furious.

It’s especially troubling that the city has chosen to take this step at the beginning of the summer, the busiest season for outdoor eateries.

For many restaurants, government regulation is a constant worry. The rules are ever-stricter, ever-changing and inspectors can show up unannounced at any time and shut an entire operation down without warning. But this action takes it a step further.

The fact that some of these cafes operated for decades with not so much as a raised eyebrow and are now suddenly faced with the very real possibility of a complete shut-down of operations shows just how arbitrary these rules can be.

New York City is notoriously tough when it comes to code violations, though it’s not the only city to recently take aim at sidewalk cafes.

In April, Philadelphia city officials announced a crackdown of sidewalk cafes there, saying that while the operations promote a festive atmosphere, owners were required to adhere to seating plans and maintain sidewalk accessibility for passersby.

There, it was complaints about blocked sidewalks that kicked off the enforcement effort, which will now include random monthly inspections to ensure the outdoor seating areas are in compliance with local ordinances. Repeat violations will result in the potential loss of a business license.

But here in Manhattan, the city need not strip a cafe of its license in order to ensure its closure. Most of these locations rely heavily on the extra seating available outside their doors, as well as the extra crowd that pulls inside. People walking by see the fantastic meals or are charmed by the entertainment are more likely to stop and give it a try. Business begets more business and having a sidewalk presence can be an effective form of advertising.

According to city regulations, there are three types of sidewalk cafes: enclosed, unenclosed and small unenclosed. An enclosed cafe is an area on the public sidewalk in front of the restaurant that is mostly constructed with light materials (lightweight metal, plastic or glass). An unenclosed cafe is an area on a public sidewalk in front of the restaurant with removal chairs and tables. And a small unenclosed cafe is one containing no more than a single row of removable tables and chairs next to the building, occupying no more than 4 feet and 6 inches of public sidewalk space.

The city contends that sidewalks have gotten smaller due to the increasing demands of motorized vehicles and the growth of population.

As such, the restrictions for these operations are strict. For example, waiters can’t serve from the public sidewalk , only from the designated wait service aisle, which is a minimum of three feet required in all types of cafe.

Additionally, clear path regulations are demanded for things like bus stops, subway entrances, bicycle rates, street trees, lampposts, mailboxes, fire hydrants and more. Fences surrounding sidewalk cafes have to be self-supporting, not higher than 30 inches and easily removable from the sidewalk.

For information on how your restaurant can work to comply with city zoning regulations, contact the Wright Law Firm in Midtown Manhattan. Call (212) 619-1500 for a confidential consultation.

Additional Resources:

Sidewalk Cafes are Cooked, May 27, 2013, By David Seifman and Antonio Antenucci, The New York Post

More Blog Entries:

NYC: New Procedures for Place of Assembly Permits for Restaurants, April 16, 2013, Manhattan Restaurant Lawyer Blog