Unlike the outdoor eating cafes in Europe which appeared spontaneously whenever there was something delightful or fascinating to look at nearby, the history of New York City’s sidewalk cafes was not as organically accepted in the physical and legislative landscape; the process has been slow and arduous.  The sluggish evolution is a result of the inability to envision a way to capture space within the rigidity of the streets and the stringent New York City zoning laws created in 1916 that mandate local uses within specific districts.

New York City is in constant flux.  Neighborhood skylines are reshaped daily, large developments and urban planning schemes continue to evolve within the city making new connections and to previously ignored blighted waterfront and industrial neighborhoods.  The flexibility that can easily accommodate successful developments in such large scale is possible because of the amenable marvel of urban planning that is the Manhattan grid.

“In 1807, frustrated by years of uncontrolled development and a decade of public health epidemics attributed to lower Manhattan’s cramped and irregular streets, New York City’s City Council petitioned the State Legislature to develop a street plan for Manhattan above Houston Street, at that time a rural area of streams and hills populated by a patchwork of country estates, farms and small houses. The adoption four years later of the Commissioners’ Plan established the grid of 12 north-south avenues and 155 east-west streets that, though it would take most of the 19th century to build, continues to fundamentally shape life in New York.”

The Manhattan grid has endured many changes through the last two centuries and continues to accommodate developments that reshape the experience.  We sought out to add a new evolutionary layer and focus to produce an outdoor urban experience.  The motivating idea, in tune with the “collage city” by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, is the creation of side walk cafés that “accommodate a whole range of utopias in miniature.”

The process began with contacting the Mayor of NYC Michael Bloomberg directly to map out neighborhoods that were ripe for the proposed program whereby a committee was established including various commissioners and city planning agencies to modify the Zoning law.  In cooperation with the Mayor and the City Planning Commissioner we established an amendment to the local zoning law including creating The Small Sidewalk Cafes Rule which allows a single row of outdoor seating on the sidewalk along the exterior of the restaurant; a first in New York City history.

The rule also established a more efficient review and approval process and eased the zoning regulations to allow more outdoor dining.  Since the creation of this ruling outdoor eating has flourished in Manhattan.  The city is an outdoor theater.  Diners can sit along the exciting energetic streets and enjoy the performance.  The outdoor dining is inspired by the older European cities; however, the sidewalk cafe experience is uniquely New York.  The colors and shapes created by the sidewalk cafes break the monotony of the concrete city landscape, enhancing the pedestrian experience.  The cafes provide links and connect neighborhoods creating a visual web of miniature utopias.

If you missed participating in IAA 2018, don’t worry! Registrations for INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE AWARDS 2019 are Open.

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