By Charles Lyons
A cluster of Columbus Avenue business owners, reeling from months of revenue loss due to the pandemic, are calling on city officials for a radical new plan.
The idea is to open Columbus Avenue so that store owners can place their tables and chairs, not on the sidewalks, but in the street in front of their shops (and shuttered stores), where they will be allowed to sell wares almost like at a street fair. The plan calls for parking to be off limits and traffic to be reduced to two lanes. Proposals for bike and bus lane changes are still being fleshed out.
The idea was discussed during a walk-and-talk on Wednesday morning with politicians and business leaders. It started in front of the restaurant Harvest Kitchen, on 73rd and Columbus, and migrated north to 79th street. The walk included restaurant owners; Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District Executive Director, Nicole Paynter; and city officials including New York City Comptroller, Scott M. Stringer; Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer; New York State Assembly woman, Linda Rosenthal; and New York City Council woman, Helen Rosenthal.
Stringer, Rosenthal, Lady Gaga’s dad and Brewer joining forces on the Upper West Side to call for expediting outdoor restaurant space. pic.twitter.com/juYAnBGAoj
— Jeff Coltin (@JCColtin) June 17, 2020
“With what has been happening to New York City, particularly to the Upper West Side, particularly to Columbus Avenue, I wanted to come up with a way to help businesses,” said Jeremy Wladis, the orchestrator of the plan and a long-time Upper West Side restaurant owner, whose businesses include Harvest Kitchen, Brad’s Burgers & BBQ, and Good Enough To Eat – all on Columbus Avenue.
In a phone interview, Wladis said Wednesday’s meeting had gone exceptionally well. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen all the politicians and business owners in agreement like this,” he said, adding that in thirty years of owning restaurants on the Upper West Side he’s seen a lot. While Wladis allowed that some 11 city agencies would need to sign off on the plan, he’s optimistic. Next step: a Zoom call later in the week to flesh out details about such thorny issues as the bike and bus lanes.
“I know these restaurants need help,” said Brewer, speaking by phone. “I’m really supportive of all the creative ideas,” she added. But she cautioned that nothing has been decided. Whatever she and others come up with, she said, will serve as recommendations they will put in writing and take to the city.
Asked to comment on the new plan, Comptroller Stringer issued the following statement: “As our city moves toward the next phase of reopening, New York restaurants and businesses don’t have the guidance and support they need to succeed in the new reality. We need to do everything in our power to support our beloved small businesses.”
“The idea is great,” said Emile Akleh, owner of Mediterranean eatery, Sido, who has been in business in the neighborhood since 1999. “The exposure will be fantastic. Restaurant owners will be able to spread out their tables and chairs.
Bottom line – it invites people to come out, to sit and dine, and it opens doors, giving restaurants more space instead of less.”
For careful followers of such matters, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “phase two” re-opening for New York City is tentatively scheduled for June 22 (per his Wednesday press conference), provided Mayor de Blasio doesn’t oppose the plan and attempt to overturn it. But on Wednesday, Asian-fusion neighborhood staple, Tenzan, on 74th and Columbus, was already open for outside seating as were many other venues – and some restaurant owners said they planned to open their outside spaces this weekend.
That underscores the widespread confusion, both on the part of business owners and with respect to the public, about the current rules for dining outside. And then there are those who know the rules but disregard them, which in some cases result in police fines.
For many business owners along Columbus Avenue, the proposed plan couldn’t come soon enough, given the level of loss. Lady Gaga’s father, Joseph Germanotta, owner of Joanne Trattoria on West 68th Street just West of Columbus, is among those anxious to try something new. In anticipation of the Governor Cuomo’s “phase three” mandate for half-capacity indoor dining, expected to go into effect some time in July, Germanotta has already re-configured his restaurant with plexiglass screens separating many of the tables.
While Wladis hopes his Columbus Avenue plan moves forward, he stressed that he’d like to see other streets and avenues pursue similar out-of-the-box ideas. “I’m for helping every small business in New York City,” he said. “The city will not be the city if we can’t survive.”