Dear Mayor Adams,
I wanted to take a moment and reach out: I was hoping we could take a moment or two to discuss NYC nightlife as it’s reemerging after a challenging few years. Before I begin, I’d like to publicly extend an invitation for you to have dinner to come to a show at my restaurant and performance venue, City Winery.
From what I have seen on the news and heard on the street, you seem to be very supportive of eating establishments and NYC nightlife in general. I’ve owned multiple nightlife establishments in the city since I first started the Knitting Factory in 1986—so I’ve been through a lot of mayors—good and bad! So far, I am liking very much what I am seeing, as are many of my friends and business associates. It is not easy finding time to go out to Broadway or see some music when you need to deal with balancing a budget, the end of a pandemic, crime, guns, chaotic weather, sanitation challenges, and a city filled with the most mischugana people in the world. But a guy always needs some time to eat, so come on down!
I’d very much relish the opportunity to talk to you about a number of things that are challenging our industry right now and what you and your administration might want to consider as you navigate on down the road to a hopefully somewhat more normal era. Let’s start with what is being debated a lot regarding outdoor dining. On this, I am of two minds. On one hand, yes, the pandemic has been really tough on those of us in businesses where the public gathers. There is no question that a short-term remedy to allow food establishments the right to take over street space in front of their establishments so that patrons could be “outside” was very smart. In fact, in many neighborhoods, it was very charming—the best setups felt like beautiful Parisian or Italian al fresco settings. On the other hand, some operators built little buildings without permits, electricity, and ironically no air flow. Some took over more public property than the 300 square feet allowed and they did not even pay rent. They act like they own the sidewalk and there is hardly parking left for residents. Such restaurants make the film crews and their trucks who take over blocks for movie or TV shoots, seem nice! I believe with the “pandemic turning endemic,” you should seriously consider going back to the previous policies—albeit, with some smart adjustments.
Pre-pandemic, a restaurant had to file for a sidewalk permit for a limited number of tables only allowed directly in front of their leased property. The permits took many months and were very pricey. This process could easily be regulated and expedited to allow for safe, legal, and supportive outdoor dining. But, that said, not every restaurant has sufficient space on the sidewalk, so some outdoor space on the street could perhaps be “rented” by a restaurant with the same ROI considerations as their indoor space. This could bring in additional revenue to the city. Furthermore, it certainly would be fair to those of us restaurants, like the three that I own, that pay a premium in our rent for outdoor space. In fact, my location at Pier 26, City Vineyard, and City Winery Rockefeller Plaza all have very expensive rent all because of our outdoor patios. We are paying rent for every square inch of outdoor space. So, while I fully understood and supported the short-term and emergency needs of all restaurants during the pandemic, it’s time to take a more pragmatic and equitable look at the exploitation of public space.
If you come to City Winery, not just to eat and drink, but to enjoy some live entertainment, I’d love to discuss a number of ideas to help bring live entertainment back to its full potential. NYC has always been the main home to a variety of artists—singer-songwriters, jazz legends, classical icons, the biggest pop stars, Broadway performers, and movie stars all call NYC home. But the ecosystem of live music, theater, and comedy has taken an even bigger hit than the restaurants in our great city. We were the first to close and last to re-open. Most venues could not pivot to “to-go” nor operate at reduced capacities. The touring acts, starting and then shutting down, starting again, shutting again, and the audiences who might buy tickets but not show up, have made the live entertainment comeback much more difficult than any other in the “gathering” businesses. Sports has television and cable for support, but shows don’t all translate with online streaming. That’s what makes going to Broadway or a live concert so special, so magical. You can’t replicate the intimacy of those live performances and that is what has made NYC so special. Luckily, the National Independent Venue Association worked with politicians like Senator Chuck Schumer to pass SVOG which provided critical relief, or most of us would not be around to this day.
But Mayor Adams, over the many years before you became mayor or even before this pandemic, real estate prices have pushed most cultural institutions, clubs, venues out of Manhattan and out of NYC entirely, for that matter. Over the last decade, places like Nashville, Austin, and Charlotte have become home for many artists who don’t have the work or can’t afford to live here. There are half as many live venues and theaters in NY today than when I came to this City 35 years ago. One small bit of help would be to not charge cultural establishments commercial rent tax. Why would one of the largest real estate groups, Trinity Church, get tax exemptions for commercial rent, when a struggling theater or club can barely afford rent, let alone additional hefty annual taxes on the real estate? We are not the same as Duane Reade or Starbucks. This would provide some helpful support to the arts. Some more affordable housing for artists might also be a way to keep the creative community around. Smartly focused policies like these might be small steps towards keeping the vitality of the live industry moving.
But we can discuss this all over over a nice glass of our NYC-made vino at City Winery! Thanks for reading and I do hope we can arrange a visit soon. More importantly, as a pescatarian and healthy eater, I think you will really enjoy either our seared ahi tuna burger with a wasabi guacamole sauce or our cauliflower crust wild mushroom flatbread.
Sincerely and a big hug,