Hell’s Kitchen restaurateurs are preparing for another summer of “streeteries”. As the City Council gears up to finalize legislation to restrict and codify outdoor dining sheds, many of the neighborhood’s restaurants find themselves in a state of flux.
Once a mini-village of their own dominating the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the large structures — ranging from exquisitely designed to shabby — are far less of a prevalent force on the once chock-full 9th Avenue. Walking around the neighborhood revealed more newly dismantled sheds on the north side of Restaurant Row (the south side of the street’s sheds still remain) as well as a shift to more temporary structures like Lilly’s Craft Kitchen. The shed at Casellula (removed by the city while the space prepares to open for business as The Red Stache) served as a microcosm for the dual dynamic many restaurants faced with their sheds — in part, a necessary investment to keep their businesses afloat amid the many dining restrictions throughout the pandemic that also created new challenges (in Casellula’s case, someone decorated and took up residence in their shed).
City Council legislation that would require outdoor sheds to be removable from November through April, create a system administered by the Department of Transportation to address sanitary and safety violations for noncompliant proprietors as well as set up a fee and licensing system for roadway cafes (the city’s current sidewalk license and fees can cost businesses as much as $20,000 per year) has just had the green light to move forward in an updated version of 2022’s Bill Int-31A. City Council members told Streetsblog that the bill, which had previously languished without progress for over a year, could see a vote within the next few weeks. If the new laws pass, businesses would be set a deadline to remove the current sheds by November 2024.
Hell’s Kitchen business owners told W42ST that many of the new rules and regulations could make setting up an outdoor dining sheds for just a few months of extra revenue not worth it. “The NYC government has long used small businesses as their personal ATM while it still doesn’t have a wealth tax,” said PS Kitchen owner Jeff La Padula. “This is just another example of beating up the little people, while the richest New York businesses and corporations get away with all the breaks NYC finds a way to tax more from small businesses and make things harder. Outdoor seating has been a lifeline for us personally and we wish we didn’t have to pay fees now to keep it going, it will really eat into our numbers.”
Other restaurateurs noted that while additional regulations would be challenging, they were used to the process from the city’s previously formalized sidewalk cafe application process. “Before the COVID shutdown, outdoor dining was extremely expensive and heavily regulated in the city, with a year-long application process, the need for restaurants to hire an architect and to submit formal stamped and sealed architectural plans to the city (this was for tables just sitting on the sidewalk, not in the street), and numerous high-bar requirements that in many ways felt engineered to dissuade independent restaurants from applying for outdoor seating at all,” said Charlie Marshall, owner of The Marshal. “That said, there was overall compliance by restaurants and a predictable outcome for neighborhood residents. As much as the current outdoor seating arrangements have benefitted us as restaurant owners, the current wild-west formula is obviously not a long term solution. I think that if fees are kept extremely low so as not to push out small mom n’ pop operators, a compliance structure could be beneficial to everyone. The devil of course will be in the details.”
Few restaurateurs and New Yorkers expected the sheds to have lasted this long. Authorized as an emergency triage measure by then-mayor Bill de Blasio in June 2020 as means to rescue the restaurant industry, an estimated 100,000 jobs were saved as a result of the program. At first, the city embraced the structures — even going as far as to create an awards system for the most well-designed sheds. But as time wore on and indoor dining returned to the Big Apple, the proliferance of rats, vandalism and dangerous drivers has led others to demand a new policy that would limit dining sheds — or remove them altogether.
Hell’s Kitchen resident Nick Proscia told W42ST of the structures, “All the outdoor sheds be removed. They are eye sores, they block traffic and are big contributors to the growing rat population.” Some residents, like reader Adele Loomis, countered that “outdoor dining has been an amazing change for Hell’s Kitchen. The sidewalks are livelier, safer, and more economically productive thanks to the dining structures, many of which are so beautiful,” said Adele. “We should make it easy for restaurants to maintain their outdoor dining areas year-round. It’s clear from taking a walk down any street in the neighborhood that the demand outweighs the complaints!” The love-hate relationship has spawned over 100 names for the outdoor structures.
The city has long straddled one foot in each camp. Mayor Adams announced the launch of a permanent outdoor dining program in August 2022, proudly declaring that the City Council was “working toward a permanent open restaurant solution — open seating that all New Yorkers can be proud of,” with a new set of standards to eliminate haphazard and unsafe sheds.
But should legislation pass regarding a new outdoor dining program, there could still be speed bumps ahead. The newly proposed bill includes a requirement of separate approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for outdoor sheds located in historic districts or by landmarked properties — which could spell significant challenges for restaurants in popular dining districts like the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and Park Slope. Some groups, like West-Village based advocacy group CUEUP (Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy) are calling for the city to “Sunset all roadway sheds now, then roll out citywide street cleaning and rat abatement programs.”
As for those who argue that roadway cafes are gutting the city’s on-street parking spaces — many New Yorkers countered that cars, which generally remain parked on the street 95 percent of the time in the city, did not need special protections. A satirical op-ed credited only to “a car” in local news outlet Hell Gate mused: “As an SUV who has been on the forefront of the vehicular rights movement basically since I was manufactured, I wept tears of oil reading this passage. This is New York City finally saying that parking spots are historically and architecturally significant enough to be preserved! Our homes are part of the city’s fabric, and cannot be wrested away by some crass bouillabaisse-slinger or struggling restaurant owner without a vote!”
“We don’t want the space for the public just three months a year, we want to see that space year-round and people deserve it and people want it,” Director of Regional Infrastructure Projects at Tri-State Transportation Campaign Felicia Park-Rogers told Streetsblog. “There were parking problems before and there will be parking problems in the future. That’s not a reason to take away these spaces and give them back to cars. The pandemic is still happening and there are still people who can’t eat indoors.”
Henry Grabar of Slate Magazine agreed, arguing that the implementation of better design guidelines could lead to a sustainable year-round program that benefits New York’s quality of life. “That presence of people eating on the street is good for something besides restaurants,” wrote Grabar. “It has kept streets feeling busy, multiplying interactions between friends and neighbors, even in winter. It has made space for larger groups and immunocompromised diners and people with dogs. At times, it even creates a sense of joy.”
And while debate over how best to utilize “streetery” space may stretch well into the summer, at least one Hell’s Kitchen restaurant — Arriba Arriba — was in the process of building a new replacement outdoor dining shed after construction of the “super sidewalk” was completed on 9th Avenue. Back in May 2022, the city culled over 500 outdoor seats while construction took over the avenue and parts of the side streets.