If necessity is the mother of invention, is it possible that the gnarly problem of what to do with all those outdoor dining sheds might be the foundation for a new cottage industry in this hive of inventiveness we live in called New York?
The sheds, of course, provided financial salvation for many restaurants, cafes and bars during the pandemic, and certainly have done more to energize our streets than the main thing they replaced, lines of motionless, empty parked cars. But they have aroused complaints of too often being poorly designed and maintained, and there is concern about the specter of vacant sheds marring our streetscapes as winter sets in and outdoor dining becomes less appealing, particularly with the city moving to ban the use of propane heaters on safety grounds. (Electric heaters will be allowed but they are less effective.)
But what if we put our best design minds to work creating mobile, modular dining sheds that are durable, well-designed, plug-ready for lighting and heating and can be towed into place and then removed as the seasons or restaurateurs’ needs change? The basic structures can be standardized around a handful of basic configurations suited to different street footprints, but there is no reason the look of any particular shed can’t be customized to fit an eatery’s specific look-and-feel and particular needs. Like food trucks, they can be towed into and out of various locations as warranted.
I have no doubt the pool of talent to pull this off exists here. Our city already has shown it can innovate in the area of mechanical design: one need look no further than a different kind of shed that has generated decades of abuse for being eyesores that create safety and trash issues: the sidewalk sheds (or “bridges”) that buildings must put up every five years during their façade inspections and repairs.
When the city finally got around to reimagining what these sheds might look like, we got dazzling solutions like those soaring white Urban Umbrella bridges that sprouted up as a more elevated alternative to the poles-and-planks monstrosities that have shrouded our sidewalks in gloom for all these years. The same base of skills and equipment that gets put to use creating stretch limos and cargo bikes and Broadway stage sets should prove a good fit for building and maintaining mobile dining sheds.
As with the construction sheds, the city should host a design competition to ferret out the most creative yet practical ideas. The design brief for what might be called the “Moveable Feast” contest should specify different footprints to suit various street and sidewalk configurations, mandate the required degree of structural integrity and reward ideas for closing off the lower parts of the sheds when not in use so as to discourage vagrants and other undesirable uses.
As the city imposes a needed regulatory framework around the dining sheds, the use of approved designs can shorten the permitting cycle for restaurant operators and possibly the cost of designing and constructing their own. The end result: it’s a tool for the city to attain more control over this popular new street feature even as it eases the need for restaurant operators to reinvent the wheel each time they try to put a shed into place. Best of all, we may end up with a new source of manufacturing jobs for an industrial segment that literally did not exist until the pandemic’s arrival a year and a half ago.
Gerry Khermouch is a longtime resident of Riverside Drive who once edited a manufacturing trade weekly newspaper. He can often be found savoring craft beer at the heated outdoor shed at Dive 106 on Amsterdam Avenue.