What most businesses don’t know: sidewalk signs are illegal


People walk down Ninth Ave. in Hell's Kitchen, maneuvering around sidewalk advertisement signs in front of businesses such as Sprint and Patron Mexican Grill.  Photo: Stassy Olmos

People walk down Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, where sidewalk signs advertise such as Sprint and Patron Mexican Grill. Photo: Stassy Olmos.

By Stassy Olmos

There are hundreds of A-frame signs on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, advertising deals from $5 happy hours and $15 brunches to 30 percent off sales.

Most business owners don’t know that these sidewalk signs are illegal.

According to New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Rules and Regulations, “sidewalk areas must be kept free from any obstruction that could impede pedestrian traffic.” Only merchandise is permitted, and it has to be within three feet of the storefront.

Belinda Mager, assistant director of DSNY Public Affairs, said the fine is $100 for a first sign violation and up to $300 for subsequent violations, such as not paying.

“DSNY enforcement officials are throughout the city every day, ” said Mager, to enforce the law or distribute flyers to businesses. She said that more than 1,500 DSNY officials can issue these violations.

“In 2015 DSNY issued 12,769 violations for sidewalk obstruction throughout the city,” she said, including all types of sidewalk obstructions such as coin-operated rides, ATMs and ice machines.

Employees at several Hell’s Kitchen businesses were surprised to find out about the regulation.

“As far as I knew, you just couldn’t have a ridiculous amount of them,” said Adienne Dolan, manager at Beer Authority on West 40th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. The bar had a chalkboard outside advertising brunch and Reggae Sundays.

Sprint’s sidewalk sign said “Sprint” and was at least five feet from the store’s front window. When shown the DSNY flyer saying, “Storefront areas must be clear, without signs and other things on the sidewalk,” the manager said he had no idea what that meant.

Employees at Patron Mexican Grill on Ninth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets said they weren’t aware of the regulation, either, and asked for a flyer to give to their owner.

A Zagat survey quoted on ny.eater.com found that restaurant closures in New York nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014. In such a competitive environment, sidewalk advertising may make a difference. “They attract people to come in. It’s the first thing they see on the street and then they look in,” said Claire Murphy, bartender at Brickyard Gastropub on Ninth Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets.

A 2012 survey by the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, called “The Dynamic Population of Manhattan,” found that approximately 4 million people travel through the streets of Manhattan on a typical weekday. With so many people walking on the sidewalks, neighborhood residents are saying these signs create a serious hazard. Members of the Hell’s Kitchen 5051 Block Association (HK5051), comprised of more than 200 residents from West 49 to West 53 Street between Eighth and Twelfth avenues, say their residents have been complaining about the signs for six years.

“Between the construction, the bus stops, and the phone booths taking up part of the sidewalks, these businesses were putting these A-frames, sometimes very large A-frames, in the middle of sidewalks,” said Steve Belida, chairman of HK5051.

Belida said that in April 2015, HK5051 began aggressively filing complaints with DSNY, having members send emails and call every 10 days.

“They said they would check into it and get back to us. I spoke to a couple superintendents who said they would look into it and get back to me and they didn’t get back to me,” said Belida.

Eventually, someone at DSNY told Belida that the signs were in fact legal, but HK5051 had seen the DSNY flyers that said otherwise.

“We’re getting conflicting stories from DSNY and we just want an answer as to what we can tell members of the community,” said Belida.

In June, members of HK5051 went to Community Board 4 (CB4) with specific examples of obstructing sidewalk signs, including one from Scallywags, an Irish pub and restaurant on Ninth Avenue between 38th and 39th streets. CB4 members then visited Scallywags and asked the business to move its signs back.

The Pub complied and the signs are still set against their windows, but manager Sarah Ryan said, “I don’t know why people are so concerned about, in my opinion, trivial things.”

Ryan also said that Scallywags was never contacted or fined by the Department of Sanitation.

CB4 Chair Christine Berthet said that the board is taking the issue very seriously. “There are many successful restaurants that do not use A-frames to advertise,” said Berthet. “We have asked our council member to discuss with Sanitation their enforcement practices.”

Matt Green, the CB4 liaison for Council Member Corey Johnson’s Office, said he did a walk-through on Ninth Avenue with Berthet in August. Councilman Johnson then sent a letter to DSNY requesting guidelines for enforcing the use of A-frames, and Green says they are now waiting to have a meeting with DSNY to discuss how to educate business owners and address enforcement.