Laughing Man Coffee Denied Again in Bid to Expand Its Street Seats

David Steingard, co-owner of Laughing Man Coffee with actor Hugh Jackman, explains his proposal to expand the store's Street Seats to CB 1's Licensing and Permits Committee. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 18, 2018

For all its neighborhood popularity, tiny Laughing Man Coffee is hard put to find a friend on Community Board 1, or among some of the cafe’s closest Duane Street neighbors.

For the second year in a row, Laughing Man co-founder David Steingard appeared before a CB 1 committee in hopes of extending the public curbside seating structure outside his business at 184 Duane, part of the Department of Transportation’s successful Street Seats program. It is a program, the DOT’s Shari Gold told the committee, meant to create more street life in former parking spaces. “What were once parked cars or…loading and unloading is now being occupied by a few hundred people a day,” she said.

More people and less parking is just the problem, opponents said, and Steingard was rejected once again.

Steingard, who paid for the structure and maintains it, was turned down last year when he asked for an additional 16 feet of seating (two benches) to add to his present 28-foot-long structure. Last week, he came back to CB1’s Licensing and Permits Committee requesting half that amount, or eight feet. But pushback came from several people who have been on the block for decades. They took a dim view of the gathering of customers outside the store and objected to the further depletion of scarce street parking by what they considered unnecessary outdoor seating. (Whether the proposal would lead to one less parking space was debated but never resolved.)

With Duane Park and Washington Market Park nearby, the opponents insisted that there are plenty of other places to sit. “We have parks on both ends of Duane Street,” said Paul Sipos, who has lived on the street since 1969. “We don’t need another park.”

“Unfortunately, what you think is an amenity, it’s become a public nuisance,” said next-door neighbor Allan Tannenbaum, a 44-year resident who complained about customers and their dogs crowding the sidewalk, and difficulties with loading and unloading his car.

Objections from Madeline Lanciani, whose Duane Park Patisserie opened across the street in 1992, largely led to the rejection of Steingard’s application last year, and she returned to fight it again. Most parking on the street is taken up with city agency cars, making deliveries difficult, she said. The Street Seats, she complained, “infringe on the [already difficult] commerce on that block. It in fact acts as a de facto sidewalk cafe for Laughing Man for which he does not pay a permit, or have to go and get a permit.”

Other nearby businesses, Stella, Roberta Roller Rabbit, Tokyo Bay and Nili Lotan, along with Tribeca Alliance Partnership president Ann Benedetto, had sent emails of support to the board. And Steingard said he had 800 signatures backing his application. But no committee member spoke in his favor, and some even suggested that the entire structure be removed. (The board had already given its consent for the current Street Seats in 2016 after a one-year trial period, which the DOT considers a permanent approval.)

Seeing that he had no chance of changing the committee members’ minds, Steingard instead addressed what he apparently viewed as an attitude at odds with the plight of small business in a neighborhood of many empty storefronts.

“With or without the Street Seats, I hope every small business in Tribeca is crowded and full and has lines out the door and has all these problems that we’re talking about,” he said. “And I wish every small business...has the community coming by. That is the major issue in Tribeca.”

The committee voted unanimously to oppose the application, with a request that the Street Seats’ yearly installation, now from March to December, be limited to six months. The full board will have the final say at its Feb. 27 meeting.