BY TRISHA SAKHUJA
Before leaving office on Jan. 1, now former Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. co-sponsored two bills that will make the lives of small business owners easier, especially the many restaurants and bars lining 30th Avenue in Astoria.
The City Council passed two pieces of legislation signed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Dec. 19 that will streamline and shorten the application process for a small business to attain outdoor café licenses and the opportunity to replace certain fines with warnings or opportunities to cure.
“You are running your own place, you have to make sure you are there, you can’t put someone else there when it’s a cash business like that,” Vallone said. “They work their tails off, and then they get taxed and fined from the City.”
When it comes to restaurants, sign violations are the biggest type of violations they face, according to Vallone.
“The City Council, usually over my objection, is constantly creating new signs,” he said. “Clearly, it should be a warning the first time the City comes and you are missing a sign.”
Vallone said even though the City should always issue warnings first, in some cases now, the City will continue to issue violations that can be cured with proof that the business owner took care of the problem and they will be exempt from paying the fine.
Robert Bookman, counsel to the New York Hospitality Alliance, said the City has not been rational about handing out fines. The most minor fines range between $100-$200, he said.
“The administration said 25 percent of all violations issued to small businesses by these agencies were sign violations,” Bookman said. “If you add it all up, it could be as much as $20 million a year in sign violations.”
“It’s a good bill at the end of the day, but a lot more needs to be done,” Bookman said.
Approximately 80 infractions enforced by the Depts. of Consumer Affairs, Environmental Protection and Sanitation would be affected by the bill. Among the violations that would receive a warning or cure for a first violation are a large number of signage requirements for restaurants enforced by the Dept. of Consumer Affairs and recycling violations for buildings with fewer than nine units enforced by the Dept. of Sanitation.
As for the application process for outdoor cafes, as it stands now, before the Council reviews an application to construct and operate a sidewalk café, the application is reviewed by numerous agencies and takes approximately 130 – 150 days.
Now, this bill would permit the Dept. of Consumer Affairs to approve or deny an application in 10 days instead of 30, which allows applicants additional time to fix any deficiencies in their application, make the Mayor’s review optional and limit the window of time a community board has to hold a public hearing. All of these measures would make the process of acquiring an outdoor café easier and less time consuming.
Chris Giannakis, owner of Ovelia Restaurant in Astoria, said the current back and forth procedure is cumbersome and extremely time consuming.
“Shortening the approval time would be a great help, especially to new businesses that have to open as fast as they can to catch the warm months,” he said. “If they have to wait, they can miss out on the season, which translates into a loss of money.”
Reach Trisha Sakhuja at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Tsakhuja13.