Pop-Up Cafes Turn Parking Spots Into Pit Stops

Parking spots aren’t just for cars and motorcycles anymore now that the city's Department of Transportation has started leasing them to restaurants for so-called pop-up cafes.

Four such cafes have opened this summer.

One is on Sullivan Street, where owners of the restaurant Local, Craig and Liz Walker, have re-imagined the old stoop culture of SoHo by building a temporary, 16-foot wooden deck in two parking spots leased from the Department of Transportation. They say the name "pop-up cafe" doesn't seem to describe the space.

"We've been calling it a porch," Liz Walker said.

Craig added, "It’s an unfortunate name because it’s more of a pop-up park."

The deck is enclosed on three sides with four-foot high walls whimsically topped with sea grass that waves in the wind. It juts out six feet from the curb into the street — the same width as a parking spot. Food is not sold in the pop-up cafe, and anyone can sit in the space, regardless of whether they buy something in the restaurant.

Mystelle Brabbee of Brooklyn and Holly Waterfield of Chelsea were recently sipping lemonade and watching their 4-year-old daughters play.

"It’s a little oasis," Brabbee said. "This is a nice outside area to sit in and to be a part of the street."

"It’s really nice; you kind of feel like you’re in the country," Waterfield said.

Street Controversy

But any attempt to change the way the streets are used can be controversial, as the Department of Transportation already discovered with bike lanes and pedestrian plazas.

Six businesses applied to build pop-up cafes in SoHo and Greenwich Village this year, including Housing Works on Crosby Street. All but the one at Local were rejected by the community board, largely because neighbors thought the city was trying to bend the rules prohibiting sidewalk cafes on narrow streets.

"If you have a sidewalk café and move it two feet into the gutter, that’s still a sidewalk café – or else it’s a gutter café," said Sean Sweeney, executive director of the SoHo Alliance and a member of Community Board 2.

He said the neighborhood is already overwhelmed with tourists and sidewalk cafes on the commercial streets.  

"Just anyone gathering for a few drinks after a dinner you get kind of loud," he said. "There’s no smoking any more, but just basically the noise, the garbage, the congestion. When you come out of your home do you really want to see a bunch of people hanging out there? That’s not what the average New Yorker wants in a residential neighborhood."

Similar complaints were heard in Turtle Bay, where another pop-up café opened on East 44th Street. There's also one in Cobble Hill, and another in the Financial District, where the first pop-up café opened last year.

A fifth pop-up was set to open outside O'Casey's in Midtown, but manager Hugh Ward said some Con Ed equipment is in the way. He said he's still hoping to open the cafe but "at the moment we're kind of on hold."

Community Support

Pop-up cafes have taken off in San Francisco in recent years. The city’s Department of Transportation allowed local businesses to submit proposals this past winter. It gave local community boards the power to reject them (unlike traditional sidewalk cafes, which merely get board oversight). Businesses must pay the full cost, which it says is averaging about $8000 for supplies, construction and insurance.

Ian Dutton, a member of the transportation committee of Community Board 2, said the new Sullivan Street pop-up cafe is good for the neighborhood.

"I met dozens of neighbors I had never met before," he said. "And many of them are interested in getting more civically involved and never really knew where to turn. And it’s that sort of community activity that then leads to stronger, safer communities."

He said the only complaint he heard was from a woman who lost her regular parking spot.

The owners of Local said it's too soon to know if their pop-up has brought in more foot traffic since opening in mid-July. After all, they are hoping for more customers. But Craig Walker believes the city can sacrifice a few parking spots.

"If you look at it, in a half an hour, 15 people can sit here," he said. "Otherwise it would be one car sitting there for the whole day, a couple of days."

Where to Find the Pop-Up Cafes

Pearl Street in front of Bombay's and Fika, in Manhattan

East 44th Street and Third Avenue outside Le Pain Quotidien, in Manhattan

144 Sullivan, outside of Local in Manhattan

Warren Street off Smith Street, outside Ecopolis in Brooklyn

The cafes are open to everyone and have two-year leases as part of the pilot program, allowing them to stay open from May to October.