In Lower Manhattan, It’s Benches vs. Food Carts

The manager of  140 Broadway wants to redesign the “Red Cube” plaza—and leave no room for all the vendors who sell their food there

The downtown plaza near the World Trade Center famous for Isamu Noguchi’s distinctive red cube sculpture might soon lose another of its features—seven food carts that have provided workers on lunch break with a variety of meal options for at least a decade.

JLL, the real estate giant that manages the building off the plaza, is seeking permission to replace the carts with benches and planters, and the vendors—at least 14 in total—are not going down without a fight. An upcoming hearing, yet to be scheduled, at the Landmark Preservation Commission will determine whether JLL can implement a remodeling plan for the plaza. The plan would include, among other things, an undefined number of planters and benches at the front of the plaza—exactly where the carts are.

Food trucks line the front of the plaza at 140 Broadway in Manhattan famous for Isamu Noguchi’s red cube sculpture. (Cecilia Butini/NYCityLens)

 

The vendors are trying to build support for the meeting—which they plan to attend en masse. Meanwhile, they worry about their futures in Manhattan, where competition for vending spots is fierce.

“Do you see how many carts are here?” asked Jason Wang, who sells smoothies and juices, pointing at the row of his colleagues’ trucks on the square. “How many families, kids? Everybody has families,” he said. At lunchtime, workers from nearby offices and passersby line up in front of the carts to get a quick meal—be it lamb over rice, Indian food, or hot dogs. Wang is proud to be providing the healthy option, as he defines his smoothies, and says he is happy about the relationship he has with his customers.

Food vendor Jason Wang in his cart with a colleague. (Cecilia Butini/NYCityLens)

After Manhattan’s Community Board 1 expressed support of the vendors’ stance in a meeting on Jan. 23, rejecting the renovation plan, it seemed that a decision from the Landmark Preservation Commission would come on Feb. 6. But the hearing was adjourned at the building manager’s request, and it’s not clear when the new hearing will take place. Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, a landmark consulting company that presented the plan to the Commission on behalf of JLL, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whenever the hearing takes place, the vendors say they are ready to explain why the renovation plan would damage them. For one thing, they point out, Lower Manhattan has what they need: lots of foot traffic.

Asked if he would consider moving to another neighborhood, Musthafa Tharuvayi, a halal food vendor, said no. “If there’s no foot traffic, there’s no business,” he said.

Though packing up and moving to another spot might sound more painless than fighting and attending hearings, the vendors explained that such a move would be difficult. Most streets in Manhattan have restrictions on vending, they said, and those that don’t are often already full. Also, according to vendors and the Street Vendors Project, a union-like organization that advocates on vendors’ behalf, cultivating customers in a new spot can take a long time, and in the meantime the business gets damaged. “It takes two years, nobody comes to you the second day you’re there,” said Taruvayi, the halal food vendor.

“Imagine you had a restaurant, and then one day somebody comes and says you should move to Long Island. It’s the same thing,” said Matthew Shapiro, who represents the Street Vendor Project.

The City of New York issues vending licenses through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in a limited number. Since the 1980s, this number has been steadily around 4,000—allowing a proliferation of black-market permits. (In this system, vendors without a legal permit  rent one from a permit holder, usually for thousands of dollars a year, while legal permits cost roughly $200 every two years in fees).

A 2016 piece of legislation should double that number of licenses over seven years, possibly making it a little easier to vend legally. But even so, the space on the streets of Manhattan is limited.

According to the city of New York’s rules and regulations on street vending, 134 locations in Manhattan have restrictions on vending activities, while in Brooklyn and Queens 33 and five locations are restricted, respectively.

Abdoul Baba, who also sells halal food from another cart on the plaza, said he hopes all the vendors close up and go to the hearing once it is scheduled. “I’m trying to organize but I don’t know if it’s gonna happen. If everybody closes and goes, it’s going to have more power. I’m going to try.”

Representatives of the Department of Transportation, which is also involved in the negotiation, said that the building manager’s plan includes a petition for “revocable consent” with the city. Under a revocable consent, the city grants the right to urban modifications but the right can be withdrawn anytime at the discretion of the city.

While some vendors expressed hope about the upcoming hearing and satisfaction that they won the backing of the Community Board, others are worried. Like Sohel Islam, who sells Indian food. “If I have to close, my life is finished,” he said.

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