The New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) is getting closer to determining what the future of outdoor restaurant dining will look like, but the fight to make the Open Restaurants permanent program official is getting messy. And although the City Council approved the amendment to NYC’s Zoning Resolution on Thursday, February 24, that removed the restriction on where outdoor dining structures could rise, the ubiquitous sheds that have crowded New York’s sidewalks and streets during the pandemic won’t be part of the city’s future.
Plans to make the emergency Open Restaurants program legal, which suspended the rules on which areas were allowed to host outdoor dining structures, were approved by the City Council in 2020. With the council’s approval of the zoning amendment last month, the last signature needed is that of Mayor Eric Adams before the program can begin in earnest.
What that will entail is a total removal of the igloos, inflatables, tiki sheds, multistory rooms, and shacks that have proliferated across the city since July of 2020, an architectural mélange that allowed designers the freedom to experiment with a novel form while contributing to the saving of local businesses. The new program, managed by the NYC DOT, won’t be grandfathering in prior permits so the more than 12,000 restaurants across the city with outdoor dining structures will need to reapply once the program goes live.
Only umbrellas, road dividers, and tents will be allowed, and as Gothamist reports, only two types of dining areas can be constructed; roadway cafes in the parking or curb lane adjacent to the sidewalk, and the kinds of sidewalk cafes seen pre-pandemic (tables and chairs under umbrellas or awnings). New limits on operating hours to cut down on residents’ complaints about noise and trash will also imposed. Operators will have to pay a licensing fee of $1,050, and a renewal fee of $525. Although the pricing structure hasn’t been finalized, roadway cafes will be cheaper to erect than sidewalk cafes.
What those cafes could look like are still up in the air. The Alfresco NYC Coalition, composed of the Design Trust for Public Space, Regional Plan Association, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign, is currently working with the AIANY to collect, review, and exhibit exemplary outdoor dining setups. The examples collected will be shown both at the Center for Architecture on March 28 and included in Alfresco NYC’s recommendation report to the NYC DOT. In the summer and fall of this year, NYC DOT will engage with residents and policymakers across all five boroughs under the City Administrative Procedure Act (CAPA) to finalize the program’s rules. This winter, the NYC DOT will publish a digital design guidebook and begin taking applications for the program’s 2023 launch.
Of course, the issue is contentious. As Grub Street reports, the February 8 City Council hearing on the program lasted a whopping eight hours and 40 minutes, as approximately 250 people waited to testify on the job saving power of the program, or complain about the noise from late-night revelers (or, more commonly lament how the sheds have replaced on-street parking). Accessibility and ADA compliance were also overwhelming concerns, as was the problem of how all 12,000 sheds will be taken down in a timely manner; the NYC DOT has only proposed adding another 30 employees to help manage the program, a figure former Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer balked at.