Winter of Our Discontent: Council Debating Warm-Weather-Only Outdoor Dining

Who doesn't want to eat outdoors in the winter?
Who doesn't want to eat outdoors in the winter?

New York is the city that doesn’t sleep, but it may end up hibernating.

The current draft of the outdoor dining legislation that is moving through the City Council would prohibit restaurants from serving customers in roadside space during the so-called winter months, Streetsblog has learned — and restaurateurs immediately protested.

“What are we, a resort town now?” asked Charlotta Janssen, the owner of Chez Oskar in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where she has set up an elaborate outdoor dining area. “Seasonal?! I am fuming. That’s a perfect way to put us out of business without obviously doing it — cut the baby in half. Does the City Council want to pay for us to take down, store and then put up our dining areas? Will they pay off the loans we took out to build them?”

chez oskar 2
Chez Oskar’s setup is meant to be permanent.

Janssen and others were responding to Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’s latest comments on Thursday — one day after she dropped a bombshell that “outdoor dining, in my perspective, should be sidewalk” rather than in the roadway spaces. Under questioning from Streetsblog, Adams’s denied the suggestion that her “personal opinion” meant the Council bill might restrict outdoor dining to just sidewalks, even though the vast majority of New York lacks pedestrian areas wide enough for streeteries.

“I’m glad you brought that up because I never said that the Council was doing away with outdoor dining on roadways,” Adams said. “Our city is facing real crises and we really don’t need to manufacture things that don’t really exist yet.”

Adams maintained that the Council’s bill to make permanent and regulate the Covid-era outdoor dining program is “still in the works … and we are taking a look from top to bottom and everything that we can do to accommodate outdoor dining for all New Yorkers. I happen to like outdoor dining personally. And the bill does continue to allow outdoor dining on the streets at certain times while regulating permanent structures.”

But Adams was also asked to respond to what sources told Streetsblog was a draft bill that would limit outdoor dining to warmer months. First, she seemed unclear about the current status of negotiations with her caucus, but then an aide confirmed that the bill has a seasonal component.

So we asked for her opinion on that. “We’re still conversing about it, so my opinion right now is really neither here nor there,” she said.

Many believe that her opinion — as the speaker of the Council — is both here and there.

“Well-designed streetery structures in the roadway should be permitted year-round,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents thousands of restaurants. “We believe there should be multiple streeteries design options to accommodate different restaurants and customers, ranging from more limited tables, chairs and barrier designs to more substantial structures that could be too expensive to seasonally set up, remove and store during the colder months and then rebuild, especially for smaller restaurants across the five boroughs.”

That’s Council Member Lincoln Restler’s thinking, too.

“Open restaurants have been a silver lining through the pandemic that have reimagined our streets and been a lifeline for businesses and workers,” said the Williamsburg rep. “I strongly support making this program permanent, year round, and simple for neighborhood restaurants to participate in.”

Janssen echoed that, saying she has no problem with regulations to “get rid of bad actors” such as the restaurateurs who have allowed their outdoor dining areas to fall apart or become filled with garbage due to misuse — a minority of eateries that have nonetheless led to a lawsuit against the entire initiative.

“Also, outdoor dining puts more eyes on the street without adding police,” she added.

It’s unclear what Mayor Adams’s position is on seasonal outdoor dining, though the mayor is known to be a proponent of nightlife in its many forms. On Wednesday, the mayor’s response to Speaker Adams’s comments did not mention whether dining should be year-round or seasonal.

“Mayor Adams supports a full, equitable, permanent Open Restaurants program that all New Yorkers can be proud of,” City Hall spokesman Charles Lutvak said. “That means resuscitating local restaurants all across the city post-pandemic with seating on the sidewalk and in the roadway, protecting the 100,000 jobs this program saved during the pandemic, and reimagining street space to better serve all New Yorkers, while putting critical health and sanitation guardrails in place under the Department of Transportation.”

Late on Thursday night, Lutvak added that the mayor’s office is working with the Council to craft a bill for permanent open dining that New Yorkers “can be proud of.”