By Jeremy Harrow
In a compromise with restaurant owners in Queens and the rest of the city that operate sidewalk cafes, Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra has backed away from her original proposal to raise sidewalk consent fees by as much as 400 percent.
Under her final revision to the cost structure, Dykstra has instead adopted a more moderate approach. The new policy will affect all city restaurant owners that have sidewalk cafes.
The new fees, Dykstra said, come as a result of sidewalks' value being “grossly under-assessed.”
There are about 35 licensed sidewalk cafes in Queens, mostly in and around Astoria. Plaka Cafe on 34th and Broadway is one of them. The owner, Nick Hiletzaris, called the original proposal “pathetic” and said it would be unfair to the owners who operate legally with licenses while there were so many who do not.
Refuting the city's claim that the sidewalks are not being assessed at fair market value, Hiletzaris said: “I still think it's too much money. We're selling coffee and cake here, not drugs.”
A block away at Omonia Cafe, John Arvanitis, the owner, was also very upset. Arvanitis recently spent $150,000 on work to his enclosed sidewalk cafe.
“If I knew this fee, I would never have done it,” he said. In business since 1977, Arvanitis said that based on his experience, “they're killing the city. I don't think they know what they're doing.”
The DCA recently acquired sole jurisdiction over the entire sidewalk cafe license approval process due to legislation signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg in February.
The legislation also gave the DCA the authority to raise the fees the city charges for the use of its sidewalks.
On 70th road off Austin Street in Forest Hills, outdoor dining during the warmer months is known to be a popular attraction.
George Scott, who recently opened a French Bistro called Rouge on the same block, said he was in a quandary because he was looking over the “labyrinth of paperwork” necessary to obtain a license to operate a sidewalk cafe.
“Depending on the costs, I may or may not file an application,” he said. Scott, who also owns Sgt. Garcia's, a Mexican restaurant in the same area, was just about to go outside to measure the space he would like to use.
“It's probably not worth it for us, but everybody else [on 70th Rd] is doing it, and it's the quintessential French thing to do.”
The new increase will divide the city into two zones, said Dina Improta, a Consumer Affairs spokeswoman. Zone one will consist of Manhattan from 96th Street to Canal Street. Zone two will include areas south of Canal street and the other four boroughs.
The rates are then divided between enclosed and unenclosed sidewalk cafes.
An enclosed sidewalk cafe has walls typically made from glass, slow-burning plastic or lightweight metal. Unenclosed sidewalk cafes are open-air with easily removable tables and chairs.
For enclosed sidewalk cafes in Queens, the new increase calls for a fee of $2,880 for the first 70 square feet and $22.50 for each additional square foot.
For unenclosed sidewalk cafes, the new rate will be $1,440 for the first 70 square feet, and $22.50 for each one after. The new price structure replaces the current rates of $15 a square foot for enclosed and $5 a square foot for unenclosed.
The original proposal had only stipulated a base fee for the first 20 square feet, but Dykstra extended it another 50 square feet after the smaller cafes had protested that it would hurt them more than their bigger competitors.
The commissioner also chose to make the rates for the additional square footage the same for all cafes to protect the enclosed sidewalk cafes because of their “much greater capital investment.” Before the revision, the enclosed cafes would have paid twice as much as the unenclosed.
Cafe owners had met recently to see how they could fight the increase. One supporter, City Council member Peter F. Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) had appealed to Dykstra to pursue a more reasonable increase that could be implemented gradually over a period of years.
When informed of the new revisions, Vallone said he would study the plan, but felt that “it may still be too high.”
But he was pleased the DCA had responded to his plea to reconsider the original plan he had said was “tremendously unfair to cafe owners.”
Other provisions of the new rules include a quarterly payment plan so restaurant owners will not have to pay the entire fee all at once.
Improta also said the DCA has more power now to crack down on sidewalk cafes operating illegally.