Debate Surrounds the Future of Outdoor Dining as City Council Ponders Fate of New Regs

While the restaurant industry has come to regard the expanded outdoor dining sheds as a lifeline in turbulent times, some critics say they have outlived their usefulness and become eyesores and attract garbage, rodents and the homeless. Mayor Eric Adams likes the outdoor dining, but also recognizes they’ve become problematic to some. The city has torn down over 160 abandoned sheds. New legislation to cover them is before the city council.

| 12 Feb 2023 | 11:52

There’s a new word in our Manhattanese argot” “Streeteries.”

Loosely defined as on-street outdoor dining establishments, usually under tents, umbrellas or awnings with or without heaters.

At one time, it was hailed as a Godsend for the restaurant industry, which was reeling in the earliest days of the pandemic and many have not fully recovered. Outdoor dining is still popular with many residents--and mayor Eric Adams--but more recently, the outdoor dining sheds have stirred controversy as some sheds have been abandoned and critics say they have attracted everything from rodents to homeless people.

Still they will become a greater part of the streetscape, if the New York City Council approves new Open Restaurants legislation and the New York Hospitality Alliance has been lobbying for its continuance. “We look forward to working with the city to develop a permanent outdoor dining system that will be beautiful and sustainable for the future,” said Andrew Rigie of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

The start of COVID and its effect on dining in Manhattan

In early 2020, many Chinatown restaurants had to close for lack of business as customers shied away from the large dining venues there, with other restaurants following suit. The death of famed chef Floyd Cardoz in late March 2020 brought the reality of COVID’s impact on restaurant workers. The next two months devastated the restaurant community beyond any predictions.

Under NYC’s previous pre-pandemic Sidewalk Café program, cafes, bars, and restaurants seeking outdoor seating had to undergo a lengthy review process and pay huge fees, if the zoning allowed it, the report noted.

A solution came in June 2020; the NYC Open Restaurants program, developedunder Mayor de Blasio’s administration, responding to the pandemic, overhauled the Sidewalk Cafe program by quickly greenlighting applications for outdoor seating and the reviews were no longer subject to lengthy waits.

The hospitality industry felt it had been thrown a badly needed lifeline and New Yorkers realized this could be an economic lifeline for the city that loves its food. According to a recent study by New York University researchers, more than 12,000 cafes, bars, and restaurants set up tables on sidewalks or in parking lanes since the program was launched, almost half in Manhattan. The extreme measure worked successfully to bring back diners. Came the Fall and Winter, Manhattan dwellers made peace with dining in the sheds, which took on space heaters and other devices to keep them as warm as possible, with patrons wearing their warmest clothes on the coldest days.

What worked for 2020, less so in the next two years as noise, garbage, vehicular shed accidents and vermin became byproducts of this building spree which also cut drastically into available on street parking spots, which had already been sharply cut by the addition of Citibike ports.

Last year the head of NYC Department of Transportation’s outdoor dining program, said that the restaurant sheds would not be part of a permanent endeavor, but street lane table dining, protected by barriers with large umbrellas or non-permanent tents, a warm-weather seasonal program. This manifestation became controversial, withresidents decrying that, indeed, the diverse streets all over Manhattan cannot provide a simple solution, notably Downtown, below 14th Street, where the streets are not gridded. One Downtown Community Board Manager noted that street noise had almost doubled after COVID struck, and over 125 bars and restaurants in one neighborhood were allowed to have outdoor dining under the Open Restaurants program. While most streets in Midtown and Uptown arewide enough to accommodate sheds, the narrow streets of Downtown are not, causing traffic flow problems,

All over the city, sandbags propping up the wooden sheds that exist have overnight guests—rats, while more expensive steel sheds do not have that issue. Another problem with the sheds? Garbage. Another hazard? Vehicles running into them, meaning repairs to the already-expensive construction. Sheds that are not in use due to restaurants closings have become eyesores, with the city removing over 150 of them after requests from local community residents. Other restaurants at the higher priced end of the menu have had them taken down. The New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo was estatic when Keene’s Chop House, that inconic restaurant on the west side of Manhattan took down their outdoor shed.

Legislation by the City Council has basically stalled until now; Mayor Adams prefers NYC DOT to run the future program, instead of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs) which was more focused with the predecessor cafe licensing before COVID. With options of agency,

The City Council appears divided, aware that they are unpopular with some vocal critics, but aware also that the restaurants that have managed to survive the pandemic have come to rely on the adding seating capacity that the outdoor dining sheds gave them..

Until new legislation is on the books, restaurants are in stasis, not knowing what to do with any future plans.

New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams reflected on the logjam among her fellow Council members at a recent industry breakfast, noting that something will happen soon, with a proper balance for restauranteurs and the communities that they serve.

Hopefully, the ramifications of this legislation will be sorted out in the near-term, and a bill will reflect the interests of most parties as Manhattan dining returns to the near-normal.