Opinion: We Deserve a Bold Outdoor Dining Program — After a Fair Hearing

Council Member Carlina Rivera wants a good outdoor dining law.
Council Member Carlina Rivera wants a good outdoor dining law.

The City Council has not advanced the legislation to make the city’s temporary, Covid-era outdoor dining program permanent. We’ve covered the issue extensively, and now Council Member Carlina Rivera (D-East Village) is demanding a better process. Here’s her op-ed piece, exclusively for Streetsblog.

We are at an inflection point on outdoor dining, and as we consider its next phase, we have an opportunity to create an enduring program for restaurants and communities to thrive together.

The Open Restaurants program went into effect in June 2020 to sustain a vital city industry which employs ten percent of New Yorkers — saving 100,000 jobs — and to preserve one of the few safe gathering spaces we had. In a constantly shifting public health landscape, and during a time of significant tension, restaurants offered an opportunity to socialize and shake off the isolation and cynicism.

Now, as the disruption to daily life caused by Covid-19 wanes, and streetscapes appear almost normal, it is easy to mistakenly assume that restaurants are out of the woods. However, many business owners are still hurting. According to the New York City Independent Budget Office, the leisure and hospitality industry will not return to pre-pandemic employment levels through 2026.

In order to get our bearings in our post-pandemic “new normal,” a thoughtful reset of this program is necessary, with the allocation of the appropriate resources to protect safety and enforce rules. The City Council should hold a fair hearing to give the public the opportunity to weigh in on the future of the program, in a way that maximizes its potential for businesses and protects the quality of life of residents. [Editor’s note: It is not believed that the Council will hold a second hearing on its outdoor dining bill.]

The makeshift dining enclosures we see that are worn down and immovable are not reflective of the path forward. The lack of enforcement of the temporary program has led to excessive garbage and pests, narrowed sidewalks, and noise late into the night. These impacts on neighborhoods are undeniable, and can be addressed with meaningful reforms, strict enforcement, and straightforward guidelines that support small businesses without disrupting our communities.

In the Council, I represent some of the city’s liveliest neighborhoods — the Lower East Side, East Village, and Murray Hill — and we have seen the full spectrum of outdoor dining outcomes. My office performed an audit of many of the roadside structures in my district to identify issues that city agencies must address. We’ve had success at getting nuisance sheds removed and holding operators accountable for noise and excessive trash. We have also seen examples of clean, thoughtful, well maintained structures, which enhance both the streetscape and dining experience.

I advocate for an inclusive, equitable and affordable program that includes roadside dining, and is guided by comprehensive design standards and best practices. The new outdoor dining program should have varying levels of participation, including the opportunity, where possible, for restaurants to maintain year-round roadside seating.

A creative and bold outdoor dining program can enhance our streetscape, making it safer and more accessible for all users. Government can empower small businesses and communities with predictable rules, person-centered engagement, and by bringing all parties to the table as partners.

Our vibrant streetscapes help make New York the greatest city in the world, and roadside dining has added to that vibrancy. Even in the darkest days of the pandemic, our streetscapes served as the platform to lift our spirits and come together through the Open Restaurants program. Let’s leverage what we have learned, and with community members and restaurant owners as partners, augment a vital program that is clearly here to stay.

Carlina Rivera represents District 2 in the City Council.