WHAT DO THEY WANT? Most Council Members Silent on Permanent Outdoor Dining Details

Good restaurants abound.
Good restaurants abound.

The overwhelming majority of New York City’s Council members won’t say what they want in the currently stalled legislation to convert the pandemic-era Open Restaurants program into a permanent part of New York life.

Streetsblog reached out to every member of the City Council with a short set of questions — but just nine of the 51 elected lawmakers provided their preferences, despite repeated requests. As a result, the public has only limited insight into how the legislators might vote on a bill for a permanent replacement that has stalled for a year.

Mayor Adams and the Council have been at odds about how to implement a longer-term framework for outdoor dining, but at his recent State of the City, Hizzoner said, “We’re going to get this done.”

“It is time to retire those Covid cabins and replace them with something better,” he said during his speech. “It’s time to come together and figure out how New Yorkers can enjoy outdoor dining with a permanent version that works for business and residents.”

Advocates called on Council Speaker Adrienne Adams to rally the legislature as the delay has left restaurateurs in limbo and unsure whether to keep spending money on the roadside “streeteries.”

“Almost a day doesn’t go by where at least one or more restaurants ask me what’s the future of outdoor dining,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, the industry’s lobbying group.

The council members who did get back to Streetsblog spanned the political spectrum, but most agreed that there needs to be standardized designs for outdoor dining structures and better oversight to keep them clear of garbage and rats. (Our spreadsheet can be viewed here; it will be updated whenever we get new responses.)

Five said the program should stay open year-round and allow for structures in the roadway, and four agreed with Mayor Adams that the Department of Transportation should remain the agency in charge, rather than putting it back under the much smaller Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs), which managed the more restrictive pre-Covid sidewalk café licensing. The latest version of the Council bill would keep DCWP in charge, even though DOT managed the pandemic program to mostly high praise.

There has been little progress on making Open Restaurants permanent over the past year-and-a-half since advocates and pols began pushing to come up with a permanent framework, and opponents of the roadway dining setups have twice sued to remove them altogether.

Some sheds have fallen into disrepair, and DOT has torn down hundreds of abandoned structures.

But Rigie noted that the endless delays for new regulations have left business hesitant to spend time and money to maintain their outdoor dining structures, only to have demolish them again in the near future.

“Am I going to invest money to only be told in a month from now it was a wasted investment, I have to take everything down? They need certainty and they need guidance,” said Rigie, who also recently penned an op-ed about the delays.

Public policy experts agreed with Rigie.

“Restaurant owners just don’t have enough information to make those decisions and that’s a result of the Council’s inaction,” said Jackson Chabot, director of advocacy at Open Plans (a sister organization of Streetsblog). “The speaker must take leadership here to find a program that works for restauranteurs, for neighbors, and for all New Yorkers.”

To get more clarity on where the Council stands, Streetsblog asked all 51 members which agency should be in charge, should it be available year-round and in the roadway, should there be a sliding scale for permits to make them more accessible, and what broader changes they would like to see for the permanent successor to Open Restaurants.

Respondents so far include Carlina Rivera (D–Lower East Side), Amanda Farías (D–Soundview), Vickie Paladino (R–Whitestone), Francisco Moya (D–Corona), Tiffany Cabán (D–Astoria), Lincoln Restler (D–Brooklyn Heights), Jennifer Gutiérrez (D–Bushwick), Crystal Hudson (D–Fort Greene), and Farah Louis (D–Flatbush).

Southeast Queens Council Member Nantasha Williams declined to comment, and the remaining 41 members either have yet to send answers or didn’t acknowledge repeated requests at all.

Rivera reiterated her push for another hearing about Open Restaurants (published as an op-ed in these pages), and Farías, Cabán, Restler, Gutiérrez, Hudson, and Louis emphasized clearer regulations and better oversight.

Roadside dining and a full-year program got the support from Rivera, Farías, Cabán, Restler, and Gutiérrez.

Farías and Moya agreed with the Council’s bill to return DCWP as the lead agency, while Hudson called for DCWP and DOT to evenly split responsibility. Restler declined to specify, but was more interested in good management than which department was in charge, and Paladino said it should be regulated by the Board of Health and the Department of Buildings.

Unsurprisingly, Paladino, the sole GOP member to respond, had the most differing views from her colleagues across the aisle. She wrote that outdoor dining is “a great idea if the restaurant has the space,” but was against continuing the Open Restaurants program, saying it was just meant as a “stopgap” during Covid shutdowns.

She and Louis were the only respondents to definitively come out against roadside structures, but unlike Paladino, the Flatbush pol was open to year-round permits for restaurants as long as they prove a good track record with neighbors.

Moya favored seasonal outdoor dining during warmer months, saying there were too many empty sheds in the winter, and the Queens rep declined to say whether he supported roadway setups, citing a need to address “various issues first.”

Open Restaurants allowed 12 times as many businesses to add outdoor dining compared to the old program under DCWP, and the new and simpler framework brought the al-fresco eateries to dozens of neighborhoods for the very first time, particularly in areas that are majority people of color and low income, a recent NYU study found.

Mayor Adams has pushed to keep outdoor dining under control of DOT, which has a far bigger budget than the consumer and worker protection agency and already manages the streetscape. But the Council’s bill, known as Intro 31 and sponsored by Council Member Marjorie Velázquez (D–Bronx), wants to put it under DCWP, and keep it seasonal.

Only Council members Keith Powers (D–Stuyvesant Town) and Julie Menin (D–Upper East Side) have signed onto Velázquez’s bill.

Speaker Adams has said she believes outdoor dining shouldn’t be in the roadway, but later emphasized that this was just her personal preference, not the position of the Council.

The speaker did not respond to the survey or a follow-up request for comment. Velázquez didn’t get back on the list of questions either but provided the following statement:

“I think we are all excited about the future of outdoor dining, and I will continue to work with my colleagues, Speaker Adams, Mayor Adams’ administration, and stakeholders to create a program that works throughout the city.”