In Parking Space vs. 'Street Seat' Expansion, Guess Which One Wins

David Steingard presents his proposal to add 14 feet (two benches) to the 28-foot-long seating structure that has been in front of his store for the last two seasons, from March 1 to Dec. 15. The additional two benches would extend the structure to nearly the total width of the building. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 14, 2017

The wooden seats that for the past two seasons have occupied two-and-a-half parking spaces outside of Laughing Man Coffee, the tiny Tribeca café at 184 Duane Street, has proved so popular that co-owner David Steingard wanted to expand the structure—one more parking space—for the coming season.

Armed with a 350-signature petition, Steingard appeared before Community Board 1’s Tribeca Committee last week to request its support for the expansion, which enlarges the structure by half. And he was pretty sure he would get it. After all, he would argue, the seating structure—which Laughing Man pays for but anyone can sit on—has added liveliness to the block and benefited neighboring businesses as well.

But this is New York City, and a most precious commodity was at stake.

“I know that it’s very popular,” said committee member Jeff Ehrlich. “I wonder whether it should be expanded to take up another parking space.”

At its January meeting, Steingard had received the committee’s approval for the expansion but was told that if there were any complaints, the application would be reconsidered.

That complaint came from Madeline Lanciani, whose Duane Park Patisserie is directly across the street from Laughing Man. She told the committee that the current loss of parking from the seats has already affected deliveries to businesses like hers on Duane Street between Greenwich and Hudson, where most spaces during the day are occupied by city agency cars.

“My main beef is that block has always had a problem with commercial parking but it’s way worse since the street seat program. Way worse,” said Lanciani, who noted that she did not oppose the seats in the past to avoid the appearance of “sour grapes.”

With double-parked delivery trucks regularly being ticketed on the block, she said, “It just puts the screws a little bit tighter to little businesses like mine.”

Steingard argued that with or without the seats, one of 14 Street Seats in the city-sponsored program, parking has long been a problem on Duane Street. “Anybody who had to come there and park commercially, it was a crapshoot,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve exacerbated that problem.”

Lanciani was the lone merchant to express opposition to the street seats. (Steingard said he had the support of stores closest to his business and received no other objections.) But Keith Klein, a co-chair of Taste of Tribeca, said the structure took away space for two money-generating booths during the school fundraiser and “we cannot work around” an expansion. He asked Steingard to hold off on installing the seats, due to go up on March 1, until after the May 21 event. “I think it’s a fairly reasonable request,” Klein said.

Steingard balked at the notion of delaying the installation of the seats for nearly two months for a one-day event, but he said he wanted to find a solution. “I think we can talk about that and figure it out.”

For committee co-chair Alice Blank, the issue was not about parking but about “equity.”

“I think it’s terrific what you’ve done there, it looks good,” she told Steingard. “I have mixed feelings towards taking basically a free sidewalk cafe for yourself. I certainly don’t believe it should be expanded.”

“Especially,” Blank added, “since you have a park [nearby Duane Park] for any kind of overflow, which is underutilized and beautiful.”

When a vote was taken, not a single committee member supported the extension, though that vote must be ratified by the full board at its Feb. 28 meeting.  The overwhelming rejection left a frustrated Steingard to ask how the committee could ignore what he called “overwhelming support” for the proposal.

“It’s not just about your patrons. It’s about the small businesses on your street who are being affected by the parking and the deliveries and all of that,” committee chair Elizabeth Lewinsohn responded. “So as a community we have to take all those concerns into consideration.”

“And you feel the people who are for it have not had this conversation?” Steingard shot back as he made his way to the door. “I feel you’ve taken the voice of the community and gone the wrong way with it.”

Though the community board is advisory to city agencies, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which sponsors the Street Seats program, said that all applications to the program require community board support.

In the meantime, Steingard said in a telephone interview that he plans to reapply for the extension next year.

“Why wouldn’t we?” he said. “The community wants it.”