Whether you’re for them or against them, it appears that the city’s outdoor dining sheds will become a lasting part of the city landscape, as Mayor Eric Adams joined City Council members to announce the launch of a new permanent program to regulate the structures.
Standing in front of an abandoned Manhattan outdoor dining shed, Mayor Eric Adams said unregulated, dirty sheds would “not be how we do business in the city,” adding that in conjunction with Bronx City Council Member Marjorie Velazquez and Small Business Committee and East Side Council Member Julie Menin, the administration was working on a definitive plan to standardize requirements for the city’s outdoor seating.
“It can’t be a safe haven for rats, and it can’t be a safe haven for illegal behavior,” said the Mayor, adding that until the full program was implemented they were asking the public to chime in and report abandoned and unmaintained structures. “We’re saying no to rats, we’re saying no to loitering. If you see an abandoned shed, call 311 — or as you love to do, take a photo and send it to 311,” he said.
“We are working toward a permanent open restaurant solution — open seating that all New Yorkers can be proud of,” he added, noting that the city was working up a set of rules and standards around the cleanliness and construction with “clear guidelines so that restaurant owners know exactly what we expect.”
While he was leaving the details of the plan up to the City Council, Adams added that he liked the idea of several standard shed designs for restaurant owners to choose from, and an insistence on union construction work. It was unclear how the new policies would function for restaurant owners who have previously invested thousands in their structures and whether already in-place sheds would survive inspection, though he insisted the administration wasn’t looking to penalize entrepreneurs: “We’re not going to be barriers to small businesses, in general and specifically for restaurants. We’re not using citations as taxations. The goal is not to hurt you and have you lose revenue because of a slight error — our mission is to help you,” he said.
Reaction to the news was mixed from West Side business owners, with some restaurateurs embracing potential clarity after months of seemingly random rule-changes from city officials, and others taking to the policy with a skeptical eye.
Sabrina Gao of Sesamo, who recently removed their restaurant’s outdoor dining to reveal a much-loved Hell’s Kitchen mural said: “I think we can find a happy medium between the pre-pandemic bureaucratic (and therefore expensive) application process for outdoor dining permit and the COVID era ‘free-for-all’ yet confusing policies. I think a solution can be found to allow outdoor dining while controlling noise and rodent issues through clear guidelines, approval process, regular inspections from the city. I also think the city has to do their part of handling the increased crime on our streets so that we can all feel safe and happy outside.”
Franco Lazzari of Vice Versa, whose pergola is not technically on public space, added: “Great news as long as we can keep the city safe and clean.” Caroline Bell of Cafe Grumpy said that for many restaurants, any additional financial investment would be a significant burden, adding: “So many restaurants are facing challenges or have already closed because of the disparity caused by the Restaurant Relief Fund only funding one-third of applicants, thus leaving the abandoned outdoor dining structures.”
Noelia Ostos of Fusion HK Bar & Grill stressed the urgency of aiding already struggling restaurants: “The best thing that he can do for small businesses is to help us maintain the outdoors operating permanently, since after the pandemic many people want to go to a restaurant and only sit outside because it’s a more ventilated area — plus, it’s more revenue for small businesses. All this summer, 70 percent of my clients sit outdoors. The pandemic is not over yet — more viruses are coming and we need to work safely,” they said.
Joey Chanco of Tradisyon agreed: “Hoping we can have our outdoor dining back on 9th Avenue. The Department of Transportation had us removed for the road upgrade and said, ‘one to two months only’ and that we can reapply — but the roads are not even done yet. This will really help our small restaurant.”
Daniele Kucera of Etcetera Etcetera was unhappy with the focus of the Mayor’s initiative. “We cannot sit people on our patio without the homeless and drug addicts asking for money. People walking down 44th Street between 8th and 9th are harassed, and don’t get me started about the filth, dirt, urinating and defecating on the street. The police are incapable of helping us. They say their hands are tied.”
He added: “The sheds are horrible in 90 percent of cases. Ugly, dirty, there is garbage all over and, of course, mice and rats. I would not eat in one of those if you paid me. Some are nice but the city looks ugly with them. I would rather focus on helping the hospitality business with lower real estate taxes and payroll taxes. We are still recovering from COVID. It’s going to take another year or so to get to some kind of normalcy (hopefully).”
Chez Napoleon Co-owner William Welles (currently in the ninth month of a shutdown due to building repair issues) argued that it was time to retire the structures: “These outdoor street shacks were a quick ‘band-aid’ solution because of the COVID indoor dining ban. They were hastily built to help the restaurant industry without many regulations or common sense for most of them,” he said.
“Now that the ban has been lifted, the city must return to pre-pandemic norms. The city wants to charge people a congestion fee of $23 to drive below 60th street, but meanwhile, wouldn’t congestion (and parking) be better off if all of these hideous ‘out(side)-houses’ were out of the way?”
Welles added: “Also, as a restauranteur, I don’t just sell food to my customers, I also provide a transformative dining experience for my clientele. If diners come ‘inside’ my restaurant they will feel as if they are in France for the evening…not sitting on ‘picturesque’ 50th & 9th as they have their meal; sharing their dining experience with the traffic, car horns, police and EMT sirens, pedestrians, delivery bicyclists, buses, pigeons, rats and the occasional mentally ill homeless person. For that experience you can simply eat on the curb…oh wait…they do! A proper (well-regulated) outdoor cafe dining area, adjacent to the establishment is one thing…but all of these other street shacks have served their purpose, but now need to be retired into the City’s history.”
Council Member Menin said that she would use her background in hospitality while designing the program to keep the needs of small business owners in mind: “I’m a former restaurant owner — so I can tell you firsthand how important it is for all of our restaurants across the city to have open dining,” she said. “But I served previously as Commissioner of Consumer Affairs and implemented the sidewalk cafe license — and we saw firsthand how popular that program was. Now, we know with open dining how important — what a lifeline — it is, as the Mayor said, for thousands of restaurants across the city.”
Andrew Rigie, the executive director, NYC Hospitality Alliance, additionally celebrated the news. “It’s great that Mayor Adams announced the City will remove abandoned outdoor dining structures that shuttered during the pandemic and will focus on revitalizing or removing dilapidated ones as we transition out of the temporary emergency program that saved countless small businesses and jobs. We look forward to working with the City to develop a permanent outdoor dining system that will be beautiful and sustainable for the future,” he said.
34th Street Partnership President Dan Biederman added: “I speak for all the other Midtown BIDs — Times Square, the Garment District and 5th Avenue in saying thank you Mr Mayor for doing this — thank you to the Mayor and Deputy Mayor for taking care of this problem.”
Deputy Mayor of operations Meera Joshi said that while the team planned to take down 37 structures that were immediately in violation of the city’s standards for safety and cleanliness, it was not a comment on the administration’s willingness to continue the program. According to a recent survey from the Regional Planning Association, “86 percent of New Yorkers are in strongly is support of the open restaurant program,” she said. “We can’t let a few bad apples be the standard for the reputation of a program that is overwhelmingly popular, overwhelmingly used and has overwhelmingly stood up by the foundation of the good, hard-working, well-meaning restaurateurs throughout our city.”
Added Council Member Velazquez: “What we’re sick and tired of is spaces like this that have been left behind. I say we leave the past in the past, and move forward.”
“We want restaurants, not restrooms,” said Mayor Adams, pointing to the shed behind him. “I have a New York nose and someone has used this shed as a urinal — I can smell it.” He added that while the current program was created under a state of emergency, it was time to “build out what we have learned from previous mistakes — and make sure we get it right this time.”
Asked about those who have filed legislation against the open seating, Adams had his own message: “New Yorkers have a lot of different opinions…but I want to say loud and clear: ‘Outdoor dining is here to stay — and we’re going to make sure while it’s here that we get it right.’”
Closing the conference, the Mayor then took a hammer to the beleaguered hut as someone in the crowd shouted: “Mr Mayor, tear down this shed!”