Outdoor dining is here to stay, but its future might look very different.

That’s according to representatives from the New York City Department of Transportation and Department of City Planning, who began a five-borough tour in Queens on Monday, updating the borough president, council members, and community board chairs about the steps it’s taking to implement the city’s Open Restaurants program permanently.

And while the program itself is now permanent, the structures themselves will have to conform to guidelines that will make them much more temporary.

Under guidelines currently being drafted, the structures must be easy to disassemble, moveable to allow snow removal and utility work, and not be enclosed. On top of that, restaurants will have to begin paying fees to use public space for the structures, as well as conforming to a variety of restrictions on how much space they can use, what they can be made of, and what kind of services they can offer.

“We really need to think through systems that can be easily coordinated with all the different things that happen on our streets and sidewalks,” said Emily Weidenhof, the DOT’s director of public space. “We need to make sure the design guidelines are promoting clean, attractive and well-maintained set-ups.”

The Open Restaurants program was first rolled out in the summer of 2020 on an emergency basis, with the City Council voting to make the program permanent in April 2021. But rules governing the program, as well as associated permitting and fees for the structures, will wait until 2023, once the city completes its rulemaking process.

Last month, the Department of City Planning voted to wipe clean the slate of rules surrounding outdoor dining, allowing the Department of Transportation, which will run the program, to begin designing what the permanent version of Open Restaurants will look like, unencumbered by existing outdoor dining rules.

Before then, the program will continue to operate under its emergency rules, which includes self-certification by restaurants to prove they’re in compliance with the program. That compliance, or lack thereof, was the main driver of discussion on Monday evening between Queens community board representatives and DOT and DCP officials.

“Some of the shelters, they say they’re outdoors, but they’re completely enclosed,” said Morry Galonoy, the Chairperson of Community Board 2 in western Queens. “They weren’t checking vaccine IDs. At one, they told me that because it was outside so they didn’t have to check. So I chose to eat indoors, in the actual physical restaurant, because at least they were checking [for vaccines].”

A drawing of outdoor dining on a street that shows an orderly flow of people and vehicles and structures

A drawing from the Department of Transportation's brochure about outdoor dining

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A drawing from the Department of Transportation's brochure about outdoor dining
NYC Department of Transportation

DOT’s Weidenhof explained that while resources for enforcement were stretched thin at the beginning of the program, there have been attempts to ramp up the response time to community complaints of unsafe or non-compliant structures.

She said the Department of Sanitation recently deconstructed several sheds in Flushing that had been used by a restaurant to store trash. And DOT Queens Borough Commissioner Nicole Garcia noted that a new position solely committed to coordinating outdoor dining enforcement was recently posted by the city.

The Queens Borough Board, which acts solely in an advisory capacity, voted 7-6 against making the Open Restaurants program permanent during an October meeting, days before the City Council voted to lift the old rules.

Betty Braton, the chairperson for Community Board 10 in South Ozone Park, voted against the new plan.

Going forward, she said that she’d like community boards to be informed when restaurants are applying for outdoor dining structures under the new permitting program.

“We want a copy of the application, so we can see what they’re planning to do,” Braton said. “It would be an easier process if we could flag the things that are going to be issues in someone’s application before and not after they’re approved.”

Braton also decried what she perceived as the loss of parking along commercial streets, forcing more traffic into residential areas.

But the borough board appeared generally receptive to the permanent continuation of the program, provided it came with new regulations and added enforcement. In October, a group of West Village residents sued the city to halt making Open Streets permanent. That litigation is still ongoing. A community board meeting in the East Village over the summer erupted into heated confrontations as residents sounded off about the impact the emergency program has had on the neighborhood.

The DOT is currently conducting an online survey to gather input on the new guidelines. In January, the DOT will hold two virtual public roundtables to gather further input. The next Borough Board presentation is scheduled for this evening in Brooklyn:

  • Brooklyn, Tuesday, December 7th, 2021, 6 p.m.
  • The Bronx, Thursday, December 16th, 2021, 10 a.m.
  • Manhattan, Friday, December 17th, 2021, 9:30 a.m.
  • Staten Island, TBD

The DOT hopes to release draft guidelines in March, followed by another round of public engagement, with final rules in place by next fall.