NYC plans to get rid of outdoor dining sheds after pandemic

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Big changes to the Big Apple’s alfresco restaurant scene are on the table — including a plan to get rid of its popular, but controversial, outdoor dining sheds.

The head of the city Department of Transportation’s Open Restaurants Program told a City Council committee on Tuesday that the makeshift structures won’t be allowed to remain standing after the COVID-19 pandemic eases.

“We don’t envision sheds in the permanent program. We are not planning for that,” program director Julie Schipper testified.

“What would be in the roadway [are] barriers and tents or umbrellas, but not these full houses that you’re seeing in the street.”

Schipper said that the DOT’s program — which would replace emergency measures adopted amid the pandemic — “is really being planned for a post-COVID scenario, where you can dine outside when that feels nice and comfortable, but you won’t need to be in a house on the street.”

In response to a question about whether existing sheds would be allowed to remain, Schipper said, “We will not be grandfathering in any of the restaurants and their current structures right now.

The DOT program is planning for outdoor dining after COVID-19 that doesn’t include the makeshift houses.
Helayne Seidman

“These restaurants applied very quickly for the self-certification process during the emergency program,” she said. “Going forward, there will be full review, so they will have to submit their plans that they plan to include.”

Schipper’s remarks came during a daylong, virtual hearing on legislation, requested by Mayor Eric Adams, for a permanent outdoor dining program to help boost the city’s struggling restaurant industry.

Under an emergency order signed last year by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, restaurants can continue to use sidewalks and streets through early July.

The bill’s sponsor, Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection Chair Marjorie Velazquez (D-The Bronx), said “outdoor dining reimagined what the city could do with our streets” but acknowledged “some unintended negative consequences,” including “excessive noise” and more “trash and vermin.”

Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection Chair Marjorie Velazquez admitted that there have been problems with outdoor dining including vermin and limited sidewalk accessibility.
Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection Chair Marjorie Velazquez admitted that there have been problems with outdoor dining including vermin and limited sidewalk accessibility.
Getty Images

Velazquez also said some sidewalks became “less accessible” to people with disabilities and noted the “eyesore” of abandoned sheds and “a handful of accidents where cars have driven into outdoor structures.”

Councilman Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) — who likened the curbside cabins to “shantytown sheds” — complained that restaurant owners have “been able to increase the size of their space, not pay real property taxes on it, not pay rent on it, and have the ability to get free space courtesy of New York City.”

“While we’ve created a program for restaurants, we haven’t created a program for the shoe store next door, for the bookstore next door to that, to the hardware store that have all lost sidewalk space, that have all lost [parking] spots, that have all lost the attraction of a block to people wanting to shop there because it is now chaotic and anarchist,” he said.

Susan Stelzer, district manager for Manhattan’s Community Board 3, which covers the restaurant-heavy East Village and Lower East Side, said zoning rules drafted to protect neighborhood residents had all been turned inside-out by outdoor dining.

“We have drunk people under our bedroom windows,” she said. “Twelve o’clock and one o’clock is not acceptable for people that need to get up in the morning and go to work and put their children to bed.”

And Susi Schopp, a member of the East Village’s St. Marks Tenant Association, said the outdoor dining program “has failed with regards to enforcement” and “has significantly reduced the quality of life for New Yorkers, including a quiet nighttime enjoyment of their dwelling.”

“My block, between St. Marks and 2nd and 3rd avenues, is lined with 50 eating and drinking establishments. The street is now looking like a shanty town,” she said.

Councilman Kalman Yeger called the structures "shantytown sheds."
Councilman Kalman Yeger called the structures “shantytown sheds.”
Stefan Jeremiah for New York Post

“Since the trial program was launched, our block has seen an already terrible increase in rat infestation, noise pollution until the early morning hours, unsafe conditions, increased crime, sidewalk and street congestion, sidewalks as narrow as three feet.”

David Mulkins, president of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors also said, “During off-hours, and when businesses fail and sheds sit empty, they become a safe haven for thieves and rapists.”

Meanwhile, Haley Fox, a co-owner of Alice’s Tea Cup, which has locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, spoke in favor of the sheds, saying the Omicron surge forced her business to close during December, which “would’ve been the month we caught up for most of the year.”

“These structures provide us the extra seating, and done properly, they provide us also a way of staying out of confrontation of people who come in and say, ‘Oh, but I’m not vaccinated and I want to eat inside,’ because we can say: You can eat outside,” she said.

A vandalized outdoor dining structure that was abandoned in Manhattan.
A vandalized outdoor dining structure that was abandoned in Manhattan.
Christopher Sadowski

“Also we service a lot of kids at my place. I think a lot of businesses feel that way and as we know, 25 percent of children have gotten vaccinated. So there’s really no other way.”

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, insisted there is room for compromise.

“We are not saying: Make every single aspect of this temporary emergency permanent. We’re saying: We need to create a more standardized and sustainable program,” he told the committee.

“This is an incredible opportunity coming to our city that came out of all the doom and gloom of the pandemic,” he said. “So, let’s get it right. We shouldn’t be so focused on what didn’t work. We should focus on what is going to work in the future.” 

The City Council hasn’t yet scheduled a vote on the bill.

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