Mayor Razes Abandoned Outdoor Dining Structures; Advocates Want That Space for People, Not Cars

Mayor Adams taking a sledgehammer to an abandoned outdoor dining shed. Photo: Mayor's Office
Mayor Adams taking a sledgehammer to an abandoned outdoor dining shed. Photo: Mayor's Office

Full of his self-proclaimed swagger, Mayor Adams on Thursday raised a sledgehammer to an abandoned outdoor dining structure in Manhattan as part of a new city initiative to demolish deserted sheds that, he says, have become “safe haven(s) for illegal behavior” — but advocates and supporters of the widely beloved program say it’s also an opportunity to reclaim that space for people, instead of just giving it back to the car owners who comprise a small minority of city residents.

As the city moves forward to create a permanent, modified outdoor dining program — amid lawsuits aiming to shut it down altogether — Hizzoner appointed a task force to investigate, and then raze, neglected outdoor dining structures. But instead of returning such valuable public curb space to privately owned vehicles, the city should transform it into much-needed open space and plazas for outdoor seating, advocates say.

“Wherever it makes sense, the city should replace abandoned dining sheds with communal spaces for use by the public, whether that be movable tables and chairs or more robust structures,” said StreetsPAC’s Eric McClure. “The overwhelming popularity of the outdoor dining and open streets efforts has underscored New Yorkers’ want and need for more open space, and we strongly encourage the mayor to give it to them. In some places, where restaurants have since closed and the demand isn’t there, it may make sense to restore a few parking spaces, but, by and large, we should seize this opportunity to continue to enliven our streets.”

The task force, which is led by Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi and includes the Departments of Transportation, Sanitation, Parks, and Police, has demolished 24 abandoned outdoor dining sheds to date that Adams say attract sex, drugs, and rock and roll rodents — though Streetsblog reported that outdoor dining is a mere “blip on the radar” when it come to the city’s troublesome rat population. The outdoor dining program is also extremely popular.

“When a dining shed is no longer in use and if it’s abandoned and it’s a safety hazard, we have to tear it down. It can’t be a safe haven for rats. It can’t be a safe haven for illegal behavior,” he said. “The blight and disorder that we are witnessing at some of our sites is unacceptable.”

Mayor Adams on Thursday announcing a new initiative to demolish abandoned dining structures. Advocates want public seating in its place. Photo: Mayor's Office
Mayor Adams on Thursday announcing a new initiative to demolish abandoned dining structures. Advocates want public seating in its place. Photo: Mayor’s Office

Adams says New Yorkers should submit complaints, with pictures, of derelict outdoor dining structures to 311 so the task force can investigate and take action if necessary — it is currently looking into 37 more sheds throughout the city, a tiny fraction of the nearly 13,000 dotting Gotham.

As members of the New York City press corp squeezed tightly together onto a cramped, narrow sidewalk, spilling out halfway into the street, Adams and members of his administration started tearing into the dining shed, which, according to Curbed, was an award-winning design for a Korean pop-up restaurant at the corner of W. 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

But so as not to destroy it in vain, advocates say the city should create public seating in its place — along with the dozens of others slated for demolition. When asked by Streetsblog if he would reclaim that space for people, not cars, Adams said he was “open.”

“That’s a job of the City Council and our office, we are open,” said Adams, specifically naming Bronx Council Member Marjorie Velázquez. “We love opening the streets to pedestrians, and I think that Council Member Velázquez is going to be really creative on how we use the ones that we are dismantling and how we use and put in place some clear guidelines for the new ones. I’m excited about the opportunities as we reimagine our streets.”

Velázquez said so herself that the “past in the past,” when referring to abandoned outdoor dining structures.

“What we’re sick and tired of is spaces like this, that have been left behind. I say we leave the past in the past and this is the past. We move forward. It’s time to step it up and work together to make it safe and clean for all,” she said.

But the same rationale can be used for the car-driving minority. The mayor must make good on a promise he made during his campaign to reclaim a quarter of the city’s public space from the domain of vehicles, advocates say.

“We can’t go backward — we have to take what we’ve learned from the pandemic to continue to shift away from cars and create streets for people,” said Juan Restrepo, senior organizer for Transportation Alternatives. “Instead of prioritizing the car-owning minority, New York City leaders must put NYC 25×25 into action by building permanent pedestrian space, street seating, and resilient green space in every neighborhood instead of car storage.”

Velázquez was less effusive and eager to turn the curb space on which the abandoned dining sheds now sit into plazas and welcoming seating for people.

“I literally made it a point to go to almost every single council member’s district and try out outdoor dining and see the spaces that work in those communities, and the spaces that don’t work and come up with a consensus, and also going back and forth with the community boards,” said Velázquez, when asked if returning that space to cars would be the best, most future-forward solution. “When we have those conversations, it’s the BIDS, it’s the community boards, it’s working together and making sure we own our space together, because it’s more than just the outdoor space. We’re talking about sidewalks and how we can all come together. It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all, that’s why we’re taking our time with it.”