Jane Jacobs stressed the value of eyes on the street to bind the neighborhood and keep it safe. What would the great urbanist think now as New York debates the challenge of seating all those butts on the street, chomping to be part of the city’s outdoor dining revolution?
This question, framed more elegantly by some advocates, is at the heart of one of the biggest urban planning moments in New York’s modern history.
The pandemic may not have changed everything. But one thing it surely did change was our relationship to eating outside, on the sidewalks and streets of New York.
Before COVID-19 New York had a rather ambivalent relationship to outdoor dining.
Our traffic, our crowds and our zoning rules all worked against it. Somehow, we just couldn’t see ourselves as Paris.
But when the pandemic made dining indoors a lethal danger, Mayor Bill de Blasio threw a lifeline to the city’s restaurant business by suspending the arduous rules for outdoor cafes and creating an emergency program that is one of the success stories of an otherwise dark time.
From perhaps 1,500 outdoor cafes before the pandemic, disproportionately in Manhattan, dinning alfresco spread to some 12,000 establishments in every corner of the city. Restaurants did everything from place a table and chairs out front to converting parking spaces into pop-up dining rooms.
City Council Vote
The last time so many makeshift shacks and structures were thrown up around the city was probably the Great Depression, when Hoover towns sprouted in Central Park. It all felt like a glorious COVID visualization of that old epithet that New York will be a great place – if they ever get it finished.
But it was all also “temporary.” Until now. The City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday, February 24, to authorize a permanent program for outdoor dining, superseding this temporary free-for-all with a more measured, managed program that, its advocates say, will capture the vitality and business benefits of the pandemic program while tamping down the noise, vermin and occasional chaos of the current dining scene.
“After almost two years of temporary rules to respond to the pandemic, now is the time to create a program that learns the lessons from the last two years and addresses the concerns that have been raised,” said Bronx Council Member Rafael Salamanca, who chairs the Committee on Land Use.
The City Council vote is actually the beginning of creating that program, not the end. The council action will repeal old zoning that restricted outdoor dining and consolidate authority to set new rules in one agency, the Department of Transportation, which has begun drawing up the new rules.
“We Don’t Envision Sheds”
And this being New York, there is already disagreement on what permanent outdoor dining should look like.
The Adams administration is proposing to eliminate those plywood shacks and other semi-permanent structures, in favor of “flexible and temporary” seating, as the transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodriquez, phrased it at a hearing.
“We don’t envision sheds in the permanent program,” said the director of the DOT’s open restaurant program, Julie Schipper. “We are not planning for that. What would be in the roadway is barriers and tents or umbrellas. But not these full houses that you’re seeing in the street.”
The goal, she said, is a post-COVID program “that can last last for years and years and years” even as indoor dining resumes, “where you can eat outside when that feels nice and comfortable, but you won’t need to be in a house on the street.”
Schipper made these comments at the hearing in direct response to a complaint from a City Council member, Sandy Nurse of Bushwick, that rats were nesting under the floorboards of these wooden dining structures.
But the promise to eradicate them – the structures as well as the rats – was greeted as a failure of imagination by urban architects who have been working on the program.
“We think that is a grave error,” said Michael Chen, cofounder of Design Advocates, a network of firms offering pro bono service to small businesses and community groups. “Those of us in professional design circles are trying to push back on that.”
“Are we really talking about a disposable series of seasonal constructions?” Chen asked. “That would be a pity.” Chen said it would be “a tremendous lost opportunity” not to use this moment to reimagine New York’s overall use of its sidewalks and roadways.
Safer and More Sanitary Structures
The complaints about many of the pandemic dining structures, Chen said, don’t stem from their semi-permanence but, in fact, from the way they were thrown up without time for much thought and design.
Better-designed structures made not of plywood but, say, extruded fiberglass, can be safer, more comfortable, more sanitary and quieter for the neighborhood.
“You can’t have an ephemeral structure and expect it to mitigate noise,” he explained.
“This process needs an architect.”
The city is currently drafting permanent guidelines for outdoor dining and hopes to present a draft version in March. A coalition calling itself Alfresco NYC has been hosting workshops of architects, designers and other stakeholders to help shape those guidelines.
The current structures and rules remain for this year and the city plans to put the permanent rules into effect in 2023.
“This is going to be a very difficult policy to get right,” observed Council Member Erik Bottcher, whose district stretches down the West Side from Columbus Circle to Greenwich Village. “The reason I say that is because we live in a city where every neighborhood is different than the next.”
Even within his district, which Bottcher said has more restaurants than any other in the city, there has been great variation in the impact of the temporary program.
“There are some neighborhoods where it is working well, shoutout to Chelsea Square Diner,” Bottcher said. “There are some neighborhoods where it’s really presented some problems. Like down on Sullivan and Thompson Street, the whole block is one long shed.”
Bottcher said he had sent his staff out to see if the temporary structures and cafes were in compliance with the current rules.
“93% were out of compliance with at least one DOT rule,” Bottcher reported, “some minor, but some major, like blocking a fire hydrant. It’s been very frustrating trying to get the DOT to enforce the current rules, and I mean this in the nicest possible way.”
At the hearing, Bottcher drove the point home to Rodriguez.
“Commissioner, what do you have to say to my constituents that really don’t have faith in the DOT to enforce future rules when you haven’t been able to enforce the current rules.”
Rodriquez said the department had been lenient under the temporary program, which after all had been created to rescue struggling restaurants. He pledged stricter enforcement under the permanent program and said the department was hiring more inspectors.
Michael Chen, cofounder of Design Advocates, said it would be “a tremendous lost opportunity” not to use this moment to reimagine New York’s overall use of its sidewalks and roadways.