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As the city prepares to complete its long-term work on 9th Avenue as part of a joint installation of water mains and bike lanes, Hell’s Kitchen residents are split over the removal of the thoroughfare’s prolific outdoor dining sheds.
The shed removal is required as part of a joint Department of Design and Construction and Department of Transportation project. According to the DDC’s Executive Director for Public Information Ian Michaels, the DDC is installing and replacing thousands of feet of new water mains connected to the city’s newest water tunnel. “When we’re working in any area we try to address the street comprehensively,” said Michaels. “It’s a big, wide street where sidewalks are pretty narrow. There’s a lot of pedestrian traffic and a tremendous amount of vehicular traffic there. The DOT expressed interest in us doing safety improvements including sidewalk bump outs, and curb enhancements.” W42ST also spoke with city officials who confirmed that the project (an extension of similar work uptown) was going ahead after several postponements to allow restaurants additional time for recovery from COVID-19 losses.
A W42ST reader survey found that over half of respondents (60%) believed the dining sheds should be reinstated after completion of the project, with 46.7% arguing that the city should pay for the removal and rebuilding of the sheds and 13.3% contending that businesses should remove and rebuild their own structures. More than a third of respondents (40%) asserted that restaurants should remove the dining structures permanently, while the remaining respondents were split between allowing sheds to stay with enhanced safety and sanitation regulations, individual assessment over each shed’s usage, and having the city pay for permanent shed removal.
Many readers were happy to hear of improvements to pedestrian and cyclist safety, and posited that the changes could work in conjunction with the reinstatement of outdoor dining sheds. Said Charlie Todd, “This is a special situation as this section of 9th Avenue is getting an exciting new road design with wider sidewalk space for pedestrians. It will create more space for people and less for loud, dangerous, polluting vehicles. In the long run the restaurants will benefit from the new wide sidewalk space.” Added reader Jenny, “They are a great step toward prioritizing the city’s human residents over car traffic.”
Another reader argued that the sheds should be reinstated on the street only to further aid pedestrian traffic flow. “They’ve added so much life and vitality to the neighborhood. I can’t imagine 9th Avenue without them. However, I believe they should remain in the street only, with sidewalk space reserved for pedestrians.”
Some readers flagged concerns over the possibility of increased traffic and pedestrian obstacles as well as building safety hazards by expanded shed footprints. Said Susan Lahn, “The sheds appear to be a hazard for fires and limit access to buildings in case of fire.” Another reader mentioned: “The sidewalk width on 9th is not wide enough to safely accommodate these structures. It is impeding accessibility and makes me avoid walking along 9th Avenue entirely.”
Added Joe Bach, “This is public land that should be repurposed for the public, not private business owners. We need wider sidewalks in this area. Outdoor dining is fine, but there are other uses that should be of higher priority.” Another respondent mentioned challenges to the high-volume commercial traffic on the avenue: “Now that all mandates related to indoor dining have been lifted, there’s no reason to have so many structures on the roadway and sidewalks of 9th Avenue. Traffic on 9th is bad enough during certain times of the day. The sheds impede truck deliveries, taxi drop-offs and definitely make already crawling buses go even slower as they have to constantly navigate around them. Some of the sheds (not specifically the ones between 51st and 56th) are entirely enclosed, making the term “outdoor” dining shed a mockery. Now that the weather is improving, we’ll be back to noisy crowds, garbage, and more rodents due to these sheds.”
Added reader Monica Nako: “I am a resident on 51st Street and 9th Avenue. I find the outdoor dining structures to be a nuisance to both pedestrians and vehicles. The rat population has been explosive — at times making it impossible to walk the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Restaurant owners are given additional real estate without paying rent. The public is suffering and the restaurant owners are profiting. I believe they were useless during the pandemic. The sheds were enclosed, so people were still dining inside. They should be removed permanently.”
Several readers echoed Nako’s concerns over sanitation issues surrounding the sheds and the proliferation of NYC’s mascot, the rat. Said one reader, “They served their purpose. Too many rats.” Added another, “Steps need to be taken to address the rats I often see having a heyday running from shed to shed and trash pile to trash pile.”
Other respondents were keen to emphasize sheds’ safety advantages for diners still navigating the pandemic and the end of vaccine and mask checks. “I love them. I’m a working actor and I haven’t had COVID yet, I have no desire to sit indoors with unvaccinated diners,” said one reader. Said another, “Outdoor dining has become a vibrant part of NYC culture in the wake of COVID and should be ensured and enshrined in the culture going forth. It’s pleasant on its own. And who knows if COVID is going to stay away this summer?” Other readers countered that many outdoor sheds are essentially indoors, and therefore unhelpful for COVID safety. Argued one respondent: “They are completely enclosed structures — basically a mini-indoor restaurant. You might as well just eat inside!”
Respondents were divided as to whether the city should foot the bill for the removal and rebuilding of sheds. Said Steven Barall, “The restaurant owners will say that since they employ people and pay taxes and generally contribute to the economy, which is all true, that they in fact represent that greater good. I bet, however, that many people who actually live on those blocks disagree and will say that there is a greater good in eliminating the sheds. The residents get a brand new street and less noise and fewer vermin. No matter what happens, however, the taxpayers should not be responsible to the restaurant owners for any of the restaurant owner’s expenses.”
Said another reader, “They are fine — but I don’t think city tax dollars should be spent on storing them, considering vax and mask mandates have been lifted. There are more important programs and services the city should be spending money on. And if they are fixing the roads, that trumps outdoor dining. 9th Avenue is pothole central.”
Many readers asserted that the city should establish official safety, sanitation, and structural guidance for sheds, as well as individually assessing restaurants on a case-by-case basis. Said one reader: “Some structures are lovely, others are unsightly and seem like a safety hazard. There have to be some guidelines established.” Added respondent Elliot, “The structures have been good for business, and the eclectic designs have given 9th Avenue a cool, funky look and feel. However, it’s important that they be clean and well maintained—and those not being used should be removed and not just shuttered.”
One reader envisioned a post-project reimagined 9th Avenue with limited motorist access. “Barcelona has been experimenting quite successfully with ‘super blocks’, where car traffic is limited to the periphery of multi-block regions, with interior streets limited to pedestrian traffic. I think our reduction in car traffic and increase in outdoor life has been great for residents, visitors, and businesses to push in this direction here in Midtown as well,” proposed the respondent.
The largest share of responses came from readers concerned over the general well-being of their favorite 9th Avenue restaurants. Respondent Anna Gleason voted in favor of the sheds, saying: “They’ve become an important fixture that increases restaurant capacity, which benefits both the patrons and businesses.”
Added another reader, “I like to have the outdoor dining option. I also want the businesses to have every opportunity to succeed and thrive, and if the outdoor spaces help their bottom line, that helps ensure they stay open and help our neighborhood at the same time.”
Carol Sessler was apprehensive over the financial impact on restaurants required to remove and rebuild sheds: “The city has been tearing up 9th Avenue between 51st and 56th for several years now…the city should cover all costs and labor relating to this 2-week inconvenience. We are lucky to have any restaurants still open in this special neighborhood post-COVID. Don’t make it harder for them.”
City officials confirmed that while the government will not be paying for the removal and rebuilding of sheds, they do plan on assisting restaurant owners in acquiring permits to operate sidewalk cafes and additional (nonshed) outdoor dining, through the Small Business Services department.
When asked about the timing of the project, city officials noted that while it was not ideal to begin work during hospitality’s busiest season, the nature of the road resurfacing work must be completed during warm weather months and that there is a dedicated community liaison assigned to handle community concerns. Surrounding the absence of sheds during the 9th Avenue International Food Festival, officials responded that work would not begin until the completion of the festival to ensure less disruption, and that restaurateurs would still be permitted to use other, more temporary outdoor cafe furniture to encourage business during the celebration.
Several local restaurant owners still planned to protest the removal of the sheds. Said Ted Arenas of Rise Bar: “Rise Bar, Route 66, Walada, Atlas Social Club, and Blue Seafood Bar all had a meeting about this last week and are getting a petition together to save our outdoor seating until the end of summer. The restaurants and bars are only hoping the DOT will postpone replacing the street until August. We reached out to Erik Bottcher in hopes he can help save the bars’ and restaurants’ street seating dining from summer closure.”
Echoed Corey Samuels of Kashkaval Garden, who has also started a petition to delay work on 9th Avenue, “The NYC DOT used whole lanes of 9th Avenue and 56th streets as storage units for their equipment for many months — we’ve reached out to City Councilperson Erik Bottcher and others, with the proposal for them to move our roadway seatings to temporary storage for a few days while they repave using those same lanes DOT used, and then put the roadways back. This is the only fair and equitable way to allow for 9th Avenue paving and also let all these restaurants have a chance of survival this year. Folks love the outdoor seating and it will be a tragedy for Hell’s Kitchen residents and businesses if they enforce this edict as is.”
Added Pibool “David” Koonvirarak from Three Roosters Thai: “Three Roosters and our neighbors decided to build this street dining hall because the City of New York mentioned that they had a plan to make this ‘permanent’. That’s why we invested thousands of dollars in the hope that we could utilize this space to accommodate patrons for years to come. Had we known that this would be here for a couple of years, we wouldn’t have bothered to build it, knowing that we could invest that money elsewhere.” W42ST has yet to hear back from Erik Bottcher’s office for a comment on the petition.
Several local diners agreed, including Aaron Hock, a development director for the James Beard Foundation. Speaking on his own behalf, Hock said, “Outdoor dining sheds are a necessary way for NYC restaurants to expand their cramped indoor dining capacities. As the weather warms and as COVID cases hopefully continue to decline, restaurants need options for accommodating diners who are eager to eat out more often. Additional federal restaurant relief is no longer on the table, and hundreds more restaurants face closing as increased costs of labor and ingredients mean margins are slimmer than ever. Permanently banning outdoor dining structures is untenable for diners and business owners alike.”
While the permanent fate of the structures citywide remains unknown, several New Yorkers cited the need to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the urban dining landscape. Reader Jeremiah said: “Outdoor dining has transformed the neighborhood and is wonderful. New York is always changing, and this change is for the better. It makes our neighborhood more focused on pedestrians and less focused on cars.”
Concluded respondent Paul: “Outdoor dining brings vitality and a vibrant energy to the avenue. I’d much rather restaurant sheds on our streets than cars jammed up trying to get to New Jersey.”
W42ST received the following statement from a spokesperson in the Mayor’s Office on the project: “In May, the city will begin the final stage of a significant project to make urgent water and sewer infrastructure upgrades and roadway repairs to address what could become unsafe road conditions. After delaying this project for more than a year in recognition of the challenges local restaurants were facing during the pandemic, we are moving forward with this work in close coordination with our local partners and will return a safer road to the community as soon as possible.”