Update: On Thursday afternoon, August 3, the City Council passed a bill making sidewalk and roadway cafes permanent, with some important caveats. “It would permit year round sidewalk cafe dining and seasonal roadway cafe dining,” it states, with roadway cafes operating only from April through November. Street sheds must be taken down in the winter, leaving UWS Councilmember Gale Brewer wondering where they will be stored. The Department of Transportation will administer the program, with many of the details, design guidelines, and rules yet to be determined. Brewer voted yes on the bill, lauding it as a “compromise,” but forcefully advising the DOT to “make sure you have enough inspectors” to ensure enforcement, and “please, pay attention to rulemaking, oversight, and the issues that have been brought to the agency’s attention.” The bill passed 34 to 11 with no abstentions.
By Ed Hersh
The Upper West Side’s outdoor dining scene, replete with sidewalk seating and year-round wooden dining sheds, is in for a major makeover if a new bill, which is likely to be voted on by the City Council on Thursday, passes. The bill would permanently allow — but further regulate — outdoor dining across the city, permit more of it in the outer boroughs, and institute a rigorous application process and fee structure.
Outdoor dining exploded across the city in the summer of 2020 after COVID-19 forced the shutdown of the city’s indoor dining spots in March. In June, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his “Open Restaurants” program, which allowed for expanded outdoor dining on city streets and sidewalks with very few restrictions. In September 2020, the mayor announced that outdoor dining would be extended indefinitely. (Eater NY has a complete timeline here.) But while there were guidelines for dining structures (see the latest version here), and an application was required, there was no actual approval process. The result is the mosaic of dining sheds in varying states of cleanliness and disrepair on our streets, prompting complaints of little-to-no enforcement of rules regarding vermin, noise, and abandoned sheds.
Here, according to Curbed and other sources, is how these issues are addressed in the bill:
- There will be two kinds of outdoor dining allowed: “sidewalk” cafes, which could operate year-round; and “roadside” dining areas, with seating and barriers which would be seasonal, temporary and only allowed from April through November.
- Under the bill, the permanent sheds would have to be removed and roadside dining structures taken down during the winter months. The city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) would be in charge of developing new design guidelines for streetside dining areas, along with faster enforcement for noncompliance. Those guidelines have yet to be developed.
- Restaurants would now pay both license and usage fees to the city for roadside and sidewalk cafes.
- There would be a grace period (probably until the end November 2024) by which time all restaurants would have to comply.
Outdoor dining and the “streeteries” it creates elicit strong opinions. The restaurant industry credits outdoor dining with saving their livelihoods and thousands of jobs during and after the pandemic. Opponents cite noise, filth, crowds, crumbling sheds, rats, and a lack of enforcement of existing regulations.
Andrew Rigie is executive director of the New York Hospitality Alliance, which represents the hotel and restaurant industry and supports the bill. (Rigie also serves on the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7.) He calls it a compromise. “Outdoor dining saved literally thousands of jobs and evolved with the pandemic as a means for survival,” he told WSR. “But what they put up was never designed to be permanent.”
Rigie envisions that under the new design guidelines to be written by the DOT, “sidewalk cafes will go back to looking like sidewalk cafes before the pandemic: tables, chairs, umbrellas, planters.” And more open, temporary structures will replace the boxy, fully enclosed sheds. But what about the crumbling, dirty sheds we often see now? Rigie says “the city has been doing a lot more enforcement recently, and under the permanent program, there will be an approval process. I have to imagine there will be a much different situation than what we’ve had.”
While Rigie asserts that “overall, the future of outdoor dining creates a more livable city,” Leslie Clark isn’t buying it. She’s a Greenwich Village resident who lives adjacent to a restaurant with outdoor seating, and is part of an organization called CueUP NY, a coalition of community groups, block associations, and residents — including some from the UWS — that vehemently opposes the expansion of outdoor dining. She lives in Community Board 2, where she says the number of outdoor cafes has ballooned from 184 before the pandemic to 954 in three years.
Clark claims that since the DOT took over enforcement from the Department of Consumer Affairs three years ago, “there is no or very lax enforcement” of current guidelines. She told WSR on a phone interview that complaints about noise and sidewalk clearance spaces are rarely heeded, and when they are, inspections often bring no results. And now, she says, “the same people who haven’t enforced the law are charged with writing the (new) rules.”
Clark says that CueUP is continuing to press legal challenges to zoning changes connected to outdoor dining. She contends that having so many outdoor dining sites causes “existential changes to your neighborhood — your sleep depends on how many drunks and how much hilarity there is outside your window.”
Outdoor dining can also be an existential issue for neighborhood restaurateurs like Jeremy Wladis, of The Restaurant Group, which owns Fred’s, Good Enough To Eat, Anita’s Burritos, and Harvest Kitchen on the UWS. “We would have never made it through COVID without it, stayed open, and kept people working,” Wladis told WSR. “Now, everything costs more, including what we pay for labor, food and beverage, and then there’s garbage collection, water, utilities.” Wladis says “you can only raise your prices so much, you have to have more volume” to stay afloat, and for that, outdoor dining is a necessity.
Councilmember Gale Brewer says on balance, she supports the bill. “We have to start somewhere. It’s a compromise I think we can work with.” She is emphatic that successful restaurants are key to the Upper West Side’s economic health. “They have to survive,” she says, but she also believes the additional cost of putting up and taking down temporary dining structures will limit the number of restaurants offering roadside dining. As for enforcement, she believes the DOT will have sufficient staff to ensure compliance. “And we’re going to hold them to that,” she says. But if it doesn’t work as planned “you can change the law, it can always be amended.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Wladis is hopeful that the DOT will seek input from all sides on the new rules and design standards, including how they will be rolled out and their potential impact on local businesses. “I do respect that roadway dining needs to change,” he says. “Let’s work together to come up with a solution that works for everybody, something safe that keeps the streets clean, keeps the neighborhood alive, and maybe even gives it a nice European feel.”
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