The city’s emergency outdoor dining program was born out of necessity, hastily drawn up to keep desperate restaurants alive in the summer of 2020. Now, the Department of Transportation is working to make the program permanent — but the city’s community boards are still resistant to the program.
“This was a fantastic initiative under the height of the pandemic to allow businesses to move forward,” said Melinda Perkins, the district manager for Brooklyn’s Community Board 5 during a Brooklyn borough board meeting in early December. “But I would like to understand the impetus behind it now that there are mandates in place for vaccination, and whether there’s still a strain on businesses.”
Community board leaders have told the Department of Transportation that if they can’t kill outdoor dining outright, they would like to review individually who gets to have permits for outdoor dining and what individual structures will look like, suggesting a more arduous process for restaurant owners to navigate.
At the same time, a new wave of infections driven by the omicron variant have driven case numbers to new record highs, possibly signaling that robust outdoor dining, especially at times of high rates of COVID spread even among vaccinated diners, could be needed to sustain restaurants far into the city’s future.
While the new variant has spread, community boards have hounded the Department of Transportation during its five-borough listening tour, citing sound and hygiene nuisances under the emergency program, and asking to be given possible veto power over proposed outdoor dining structures when new rules go into effect in 2023.
The agency is in the process of finalizing criteria for the program, but, so far, DOT officials have been resistant to conceding any such power to the unelected boards. They say that under the new guidelines, community boards would have an advisory role, much like for bike lanes or liquor permits. Public hearings outside of community boards would be held for pending applications, allowing the general public to provide input, but with the city acting as the ultimate arbiter.
“My question is, as we move forward with this initiative, how will DOT work with my district on issues so that there’s no further parking taken off-line, and so that the restaurants that are selected have meaningful input from the community,” asked Arline Parks, the chair of Community Board 1 in Mott Haven, during a meeting of the Bronx borough board on Thursday.
DOT officials have said they’re working to create guidelines that will keep the community informed about the permitting process, and how to get involved in crafting that process.
Under the emergency programs, boroughs that hadn’t had many outdoor restaurants prior to the pandemic saw their numbers explode. Before the pandemic, the Bronx only had fifty permitted outdoor dining spaces. Under the emergency program, more than 650 restaurants had expanded their dining space outside. The number of open restaurants in the city has risen to over 11,000 during the pandemic, where there were just over one-thousand open restaurants at the beginning of 2020.
Critics of the program from community boards have said losses of parking, unsafe sheds, and large outdoor parties, have decreased the quality of life in parts of the city that had never had robust outdoor dining scenes.
“Outdoor dining was critical in the revival of thousands and thousands of restaurants in the five boroughs,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of NYC Hospitality Alliance, which is helping to craft the new guidelines. “It helped New Yorkers, for the first time, get to eat, drink, and socialize after months of being locked in their apartments and homes.”
Many community boards across the city voted against lifting the old rules that governed open restaurants in the city, a first step towards the city’s new permanent program. In October, a group of West Village residents sued the city to halt making Open Resturaunts permanent.
“A significant majority of community boards voted against this. What would it take to stop this failed program?” asked Micki McGee, of SoHo, who attended the Brooklyn Borough Board meeting.
The community board’s votes were only advisory — and the city planning department voted to lift the old rules anyway last month. The incoming City Council is poised to do so as well.
Already, the Department of Transportation, which will manage the program, has signaled a massive shift from the structures currently allowed on city streets today. Structures will have to be easily removable, not enclosed, and built of prescribed materials and within certain guidelines to be eligible.
On top of that, restaurants would not be able to expand beyond the space in front of their storefronts, and hours of operation will be curtailed. Restaurants will have to pay for permits, and be up for renewal every few years.
The emergency program will still be in effect for another year — allowing restaurants to safely operate outdoors during the holiday season, which is coinciding with the omicron variant spike.
“For months, I heard people who don’t support outdoor dining telling us the crisis was over, we should get rid of it and then you see this big increase in covid cases,” said Rigie, with the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “Outdoor dining once again is proving itself a critical tool in the restaurant economy and New York City landscape.”