Sidewalk cafes have long been a popular feature of New York City dining, but many restaurants’ sidewalks are too narrow to set out tables and chairs without violating city code. Offering a solution to this spatial problem, on August 12 the Department of Transportation (DOT) unveiled its first “pop-up cafe” in Lower Manhattan—an 84-foot-long and 6-foot-wide wooden platform with planters, wire railing, 14 cafe tables, and 50 chairs—as the agency’s latest move to reclaim road space for public use.
The platform is installed in four parking spots in front of two establishments on Pearl Street, Fika’s cafe and Bombay’s restaurant, which approached the Downtown Alliance and DOT earlier this year about ways to expand onto the sidewalk. According to DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the agency worked closely with the two restaurants as well as the Downtown Alliance and the Department of Consumer Affairs, which licenses outdoor cafes, to arrive at a workable solution that would provide not only cafe tables but new public space in a part of the city starved for parks. “Inventions like this help make our streets into destinations and improve the quality of life for the thousands of people who live, work, and play in Lower Manhattan,” Sadik-Khan said in a release.
The inexpensive platform was designed pro bono by San Francisco–based architect Riyad Ghannam of RG Architecture, who came to the DOT’s attention after an agency intern mentioned a similar design Ghannam had first created for the popular Parking Day event in San Francisco. The DOT then recruited Ghannam to advise on the Lower Manhattan site, and in short order he found himself designing and helping construct the project, for which Bison Innovative Products provided the materials at cost and participated in construction pro bono.
“It was just barely a month from the concept to actual on-street implementation,” said Ghannam by phone from San Francisco. “The idea is that this is temporary, or at least seasonal, so we wanted the restaurants to have enough time to use it.” The cafe space is maintainted by the two restaurants but freely available for use by the public. The platform and its 12 Cor-ten steel planters will be stored during the winter, when the parking spots will be returned to service.
The DOT is currently evaluating the cafe to determine if similar temporary spaces should be rolled out elsewhere in the city. The agency would do well to look to San Francisco, which according to Ghannam is studying the revenue potential of streetfront sites that could be rented by adjacent restaurants instead of given over to parking meters. “It’s kind of a win-win,” Ghannam said. “The business gets some stimulus by having more space to use, and the city gets revenue.”