Earlier this year, Mayor Adams declared that “it’s time to retire those COVID cabins and replace them with something better.” We couldn’t agree more. But the question is: replace them with what?
Acting at the urging of the Mayor, the City Council will soon take up legislation that could make the worst mistakes of the pandemic program permanent. We think that would be a colossal blunder. But we also believe that there’s still time for the Council to get it right. And we know that a world-class city like New York deserves a world-class outdoor dining program — not one pieced together from a makeshift emergency intervention masquerading as a model for the future of outdoor dining.
Rather than creating an innovative new program, the City Council bill (Proposed Intro 31-A) prolongs and extends the damage the emergency restaurant program has inflicted on many neighborhoods across the city. The bill allows for the blight of sheds and roadway setups in our communities to continue, possibly as long as through October 2024, saddling restaurant-dense neighborhoods with another 18 months of the trash, noise, rats, and congestion that we’ve endured for nearly three years.
The new law would reward scofflaws by setting fines as low as “zero dollars” for unlicensed outdoor dining, ensuring that the havoc of unregulated outdoor drinking and dining will become a permanent feature of our city. And the legislation allows restaurants and bars to cut to the front of the line to stake their claims to public spaces — before there is any open public discussion of possible new uses of our shared sidewalk and curb lanes.
Perhaps most disturbing, if passed in its current form, Intro 31-A will trigger provisions of the companion “zoning text amendment” passed by the Council one year ago. That earlier action eviscerates protections for residential areas. Restaurants and bars will be permitted almost anywhere, and there will be nothing to stop bars, pubs, taverns, and clubs from operating with fully open windows and facades, blasting amplified music and crowd noise directly into the windows of neighboring families, elders, and children.
But there’s still time for the City Council to get this right. And New Yorkers are all in to help — just as we were all in to support our restaurants when the pandemic required emergency restrictions.
Over the past year, stakeholders from across the city have been meeting, sharing stories about conditions in their neighborhoods, and sketching a blueprint for the future of outdoor dining.
The result is the Community Blueprint for Outdoor Dining, an outline that incorporates the lessons learned in the pandemic emergency with the best features of the former sidewalk café:
- reasonable limits on restaurant density in residential neighborhoods that encourage restaurant investment in the outer boroughs
- sensible closing hours in residential areas to mitigate noise
- climate-friendly restrictions on heating and air-conditioning the outdoors
- an equitable role for community boards in café licensing
- clear pedestrian walkways with 12-foot sidewalk minimums for dining setups, and
- the return of program oversight to the experienced Department of Consumer Affairs (now DCWP) that successfully managed the pre-pandemic sidewalk café program.
We still welcome the opportunity to present the Community Blueprint to the Council at a public hearing. But since no hearing is planned, we are sharing the plan publicly.
The City Council intends to supersize New York’s outdoor dining. But we all know that bigger rarely means better. And that millions of New Yorkers have no interest in making a lifestyle out of pandemic precautions.
Read the Community Blueprint for Outdoor Dining. And if you agree that outdoor dining needs to work for both residents and small businesses, write your City Council representatives today. Tell them to join us in rebuilding New York for a post-pandemic, climate-friendly future that serves all New Yorkers.
— The CUE-UP Facilitation Committee