Curbside parklettes spark controversy for local businesses


West 37th, 8th Avenue Street seat

View of a West 37th Street parklette from inside Non Solo Piada. The Housing Works Community Healthcare center, which provides treatment for drug users,  is across the street. Photo: Christina Shaman.

A plant-covered enclosure with three tables sits at 8th Avenue and West 37th street, in what would otherwise be two parking spaces. There, a man talks on the phone; a woman eats breakfast. John James, a concrete inspector, reads the morning paper. He says the flowers remind him of being home in the Caribbean. Two security guards stand nearby.

The NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) constructed the space, known as a parklette, in August, as part of a citywide Street Seat program. One of sixteen street seats across the city, and the seventh in Midtown West, the parklette was built to transform an underused street into a “vibrant, social” public space “for residents and visitors to enjoy,” DOT spokesperson, Lolita Avila, wrote in an email.

But this particular parklette has created more conflict than relief throughout the neighborhood. From the start, business owners have complained about its location—directly across from the Housing Works Community Healthcare center, a treatment and prevention center that provides a needle exchange for drug users.

The parklette is in front of the café Non Solo Piada, whose manager, Sanna Iriti, says it was “supposed to be very beneficial.” But a week after it opened she was ready to have it removed. People were sleeping, changing clothes, washing themselves, using drugs and smoking in front of her establishment, she says.

“They’re not harmful, believe me,” Iriti says of the clients—many of them homeless—that Housing Works serves. “We’re used to them. But it’s not really nice for tourists and kids.”

Iriti complained to the Garment District Alliance, a non-profit funded by local business and property owners, which worked with the DOT to install the parklettes in their neighborhood. Andrew Stricklin, manager of streetscape improvements and district planning at the Garment District Alliance says the alliance responded by stationing a dedicated security guard at the parklette.

“It’s definitely a good point that you have to be mindful of where you’re putting these,” Stricklin says. But he points out that people could complain about the homeless population anywhere in Midtown.

Stricklin says the alliance built the parklette between 8th and 9th Avenues because it wanted involvement from both Community Boards 4 and 5, which are split by 8th Avenue. “Just because there’s these social services agencies, doesn’t mean we are not going to give resources like parklettes to certain blocks,” he says.

Nicholas Cohen, a member of the Garment District Alliance board, owns Stitch Bar and Lounge and the Houndstooth Pub, both a block over from the parklette. He says last year’s location—the café next to Stitch—was better than this year’s, because it was not directly across from the needle exchange.

But owner of that café, Rami Ab, disagrees, and says that the parklette attracted homeless people there too. He says he wishes a security guard had been stationed at his establishment. When the parklette was in front of his business, he made no complaints to the city, because the space is open to the public and he felt he had no right to kick people out.

Max Sepulveda, the managing director at Housing Works says whoever complains about the homeless population in the parklette does not understand the neighborhood they live in.

“We are between Port Authority and Penn Station. We are close to Hell’s Kitchen. It’s generally an area that is highly populated by transient individuals,” Sepulveda says, adding that there are plenty of other programs for the homeless across Midtown West.

“The assumption is not that you have to be dealing with the homeless, with individuals who might be under the influence, those that are suffering from mental health dynamics, but that you understand that this is the population in the area,” he adds. “It’s like if you go to Harlem and you expect that you are not going to see any black person.”

Sepulveda says his clients told him they are forbidden to sit in the parklette, “even if they purchase from the store.”

“Mind you,” he adds, “that is, from my understanding, a public space.”

Security guard Roberto Tejada, says there is nothing he or his colleagues can do to prevent homeless people from sitting in the parklette, but says their uniforms sometimes act as a deterrent for antisocial behavior, like drinking and drug use.

“We don’t have the power to tell them what to do,” Tejada says. “We can only ask them to stop doing what they’re doing, or we’ll call someone who actually has the power, like the NYPD.”

Lulu Johnson, who currently lives in a homeless shelter on 96th street and attends programming at Housing Works, says she likes the parklette because it is quiet, and people mind their business.

“Like, I’m standing here drinking a beer,” Johnson says, sipping from a paper bag. “Nobody didn’t say nothing to me, nobody gave me a wrong look or anything.”

According to Avila, the city spends approximately $150,000 per year on materials for all sixteen parklettes. But Stricklin says that does not cover the full cost. Between installation and maintenance, Stricklin says they cost, on average, $25,000 each. With sixteen street seats currently installed, that’s roughly $400,000.

The Garment District makes up for the remaining cost for their parklettes through the alliance, which gets its money from taxes paid by neighborhood business owners.

Iriti believes it would have been more cost efficient for the city to remove the parklette in front of her business than it was to station security guards there. “They probably don’t want to admit” they made a mistake, she says.

The parklette will be put into storage in November, and moved to another spot next spring. Iriti has come to realize that there’s one thing she will miss. “I hope they’re going to keep this all year round,” she says, “so we will have the security guard all the time.”