Tough Win for Putting Seating in a Tribeca Parking Space

Laughing Man owner David Steingard shows the plan at a second meeting before the Tribeca Committee. Steingard grew up in the building and he and his own family now live there.  Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Mar. 30, 2015

Laughing Man must be smiling.

The tiny and popular Tribeca coffee shop gained approval from Community Board 1 to put seasonal seating in a parking space outside its store at 184 Duane St. But it didn’t come easily.

The structure, expected to be put in place in May or June and remain until October, is part of the city Department of Transportation’s Street Seats program, which provides temporary public spaces on the streets next to sponsoring businesses that pay for them. At six feet wide and 28 feet long, the installation will be flush with the curb, with wooden decking and collapsible seats that fold down at night. It also will include two sets of movable tables and chairs and two planters.

Anyone can sit in Street Seats, but for Laughing Man, and its customers who often congregate on the sidewalk, Street Seats provides a particularly valuable amenity.

At two contentious meetings before CB1’s Tribeca Committee and again at the full board meeting where it was finally approved, some members insisted that the structure would exacerbate what some described as traffic problems on the street and even be a safety hazard. In February, an SUV struck a woman in the intersection of Duane and Green­wich streets, and in December, a minivan jumped the curb at that same intersection before crashing into the patio of Roc Restaurant.

“I think sitting out there in what is really the point of a still-narrow street is a big safety concern,” said committee member Allen Tannenbaum, who lives a few doors down. “You have the tractor-trailers coming through, not just the box trucks but the big trucks, sometimes express buses. I think that it’s taking away spaces for commercial vehicles.”

“My concern is sticking people out there,” said committee member Jeff Ehrlich. “Duane forks left and right and people who don’t know that, coming around fast, suddenly have to make that decision. And that’s right where this would be.”

But Nick Peterson, the DOT’s co-director for public space, said the department has evaluated the safety of placing the seats in that space.

“We are the guys who are the engineers at the DOT,” he said. “We deem this to be safe.”

Supporters of the project called it a beautifying addition to the block, and one that would do no harm.

Duane Street resident Lynn Ellsworth, founder of the preservation group Tribeca Trust, described the street seats as “a nice way to capture the roadway for people."

“I think it’s a lovely addition to the human part of [the street],” she said. “And it’s not affecting any of the buildings.”

“It’s almost an extension of [Duane] park, in a big way,” said Steve Wygoda, a non-voting public member of the committee.

Laughing Man’s co-owner and CEO, David Steingard, who lives with his family above the store, called the project an experiment and repeatedly implored the board to give it a chance.

“I am more than willing to come back and review this year after year,” he said. “If it turns out that none of our fears come true, then great. I think it’s a beautiful addition.”

Still, some board members, such as Alice Blank, worried that Steingard was getting special treatment. “I just don’t think it’s fair to give one merchant the ability to take over a piece of public property without anyone else having a shot at it,” she said.

Not so, said the seating’s designer, landscape architect Signe Nielsen, who owns two units above Laughing Man and lives across the street.

“If they are willing to step forward and contribute the capital, the maintenance and the storage that Laughing Man is prepared to do, then knock yourself out,” Nielsen said at the full board meeting. “So to simply say that Laughing Man is taking away somebody else’s rights is completely wrong.”

In committee, the proposal squeaked by in a 4-3 vote. At the full board, it passed 21-10, with two abstentions.


'Street Seats' on Duane Will Only Benefit the Block

I read with interest your report on Community Board 1’s approval of a public seating installation in front of the Laughing Man coffee shop (“It’s a Tough Win for Duane Street Seats,” April). I live across the street and my kitchen window two flights up gives me a clear view of the shop, street and sidewalk.

What I see is the customary dance of people walking and biking and cars and trucks — perhaps a calmer-than-average dance because the street’s heavy foot traffic and unusual geometry induce some drivers to ease up. In the twenty years I’ve lived here no one has been struck or injured mid-block, to my knowledge.

So I was surprised to read that some community board members are worried the Laughing Man installation will make Duane Street less safe. For even if the block were crash-prone, that would only strengthen the case for making a small patch of curbside into public seating. Drivers tend to slow down when streets have more people. Ditto when there are fewer parked cars. With “more eyes on the street,” to use a Jane Jacobs expression, double-parking and engine-idling may become less common as well. In all these ways, Laughing Man’s seating corral can benefit the entire block.

As long as I’ve lived here, the patch of curb space that will now be given over to seating has been used to store one or another person’s private automobile. I’m looking forward to seeing people occupy it.

Duane Street