By Robert Grandt, Michael Kenna, David Zelman, and Leslie Clark
Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy (CUEUP)
When temporary outdoor dining started in June of 2020, just about everyone supported it. Indoor dining wasn’t allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants could get up and running again. And their residential neighbors were happy to see local eateries back in business — with the understanding, as per the program’s title, that this use of public property would be “temporary.”
So, let’s start right there on the “what’s wrong” list. In just three months, Mayor di Blasio, the City Council, and lobbyists from the Hospitality Alliance redefined “temporary” as permanent. And let’s be painfully clear here: permanent = forever.
Changing the landscape of every street and every sidewalk in a great city like New York forever ought to involve a significant public discussion. This one didn’t. When community boards were asked their opinion, a majority of those who answered said they didn’t want this vast change.* Those community boards were then ignored by the same pols who appointed their members.
Public property should, and by law does, belong to the public. But for two-and-a-half years, that public property has been given for free to one private industry for their private profit.
So, let’s mention another implication of this politically sanctioned, restaurant land grab: street sweeping has been long interrupted on streets with sheds. Some areas have not been touched by a broom for two-and-a- half years. Yes. It stinks.
And let’s mention that the restaurant industry – many with multiple locations — has received over $5 billion in federal aid in New York City alone.** Did their neighboring businesses – stationery stores, toy stores, dry cleaners – get anything like that kind of taxpayer windfall? They did not.
What did those neighboring businesses get instead? Blocked access to their front doors, blocked signs so their customers can’t find them, a reduction in parking so their customers can’t get to their stores, and sidewalks narrowed to single-file pedestrian paths. So those neighboring businesses lost and are still losing business and sales and revenue. Yes, that stinks too.
In a city that also lost revenue during the pandemic, the public coffers are running dangerously low. So, while booming restaurants are turning out more trash, that trash isn’t being picked up. More stink.
Put restaurants outside on the street and they behave the way they do inside: they blast music at their customers who are often drunk – and shouting over each other. That alcohol-fueled din of voice-and-music is now “shared” by the residents who live next to those restaurants. So outdoor dining is a seven-night-a-week street party.
But let’s be fair. There is one constituency that has found a true “lifeline” in this “universally popular” program: rats. While the industry lobbyists and their politician friends invent every explanation they can for the explosion in rats, they ignore the one explanation staring them in the face: the abundant rat snacks dropping from outdoor tables and cozy rodent breeding grounds below. Making this program permanent stinks for everyone but the rats, the restaurateurs, and the politicians pandering to them.
And your City Council Member is about to pass a bill making all of this permanent without a public hearing – over the objection of more than 40 New York City community leaders. The stench is overpowering. It’s time to clean up this mess.
*These data are publicly available on the Zoning Application Portal maintained by the New York City Department of City Planning: https://zap.planning.nyc.gov/projects/2021Y0291.
**Restaurants across NYC’s five boroughs received $5.88 billion in federal funding (a combined $2.76 billion dollars in Restaurant Revitalization Funds and $3.12 billion dollars in Paycheck Protection Program funding.)
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