Bill would create permanent NYC al fresco dining option; parking, noise concerns remain

outdoor dining
The New York City Council is discussing whether to make the temporary Open Restaurants Program, which facility an expansion of outdoor dining necessitated during the pandemic, a permanent fix of city dining.
Photo Adrian Childress

The Open Restaurants Program created during COVID-19 saved 100,000 jobs in NYC and now elected officials are discussing whether to turn the popular temporary outdoor dining program into a permanent one.

With a mandated shutdown in March of 2020 due to the pandemic, restaurants were hurting and many shuttered. Recognizing the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19, city government launched Open Restaurants in June of that year, which allowed restaurants and bars to expand outdoor seating on sidewalks, curb lanes, backyards, patios and plazas, and established an expedited approval process by allowing restaurants and bars to self-certify their eligibility for curb lane and sidewalk seating. Under the program, more than 12,000 restaurants established outdoor dining on either the sidewalk or roadway throughout the city.

City Councilwoman Marjorie Velázquez, chair of the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection, introduced a bill Feb. 10 that would repeal the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) sidewalk café licensing application process and create a new permanent outdoor dining program, which in addition to sidewalk cafés, would allow seasonal roadway dining and be administered by the city Department of Transportation (DOT).

A week later, on Feb. 17, the first step in creating a permanent outdoor dining program took place when the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Committee on Land Use voted to recommend the approval of a zoning proposal. The zoning proposal will come before the full City Council for a vote Feb. 24.

Since the city Open Restaurants Program began in 2020, DOT and other government agencies have already conducted nearly 60,000 inspections, and fined and removed restaurants that failed multiple inspections. In total, there have been 22 fines, 40 removals and 4,292 warnings. Photo Adrian Childress

“Over the course of an over eight-hour hearing (on Feb. 8), I heard loud and clear the many concerns about sanitation, noise pollution, pedestrian safety, designing, accessibility and enforcement from people all over the city,” Velázquez said. “I questioned the relevant city agencies so we could begin the work to find solutions to many of these issues. Restaurants are run by hard-working people and their success impacts not just their livelihoods but countless employees and other businesses, and they need our support. Along with my colleagues, I look forward to crafting a bill that includes a permanent solution and takes all stakeholders’ perspectives into account.”

Velázquez, a Throggs Neck Democrat, told the Bronx Times that before the pandemic, only 30 restaurants in the Bronx had sidewalk café licenses, but now the borough has more than 650 establishments utilizing them.

“It’s a great opportunity to experience outdoor dining,” Velázquez said. “The question for us is what do we do now? I think the mayor (Eric Adams) wants to see this happen.”

The City Council Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection and the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises held a joint public hearing Feb. 8 on Open Restaurants where Velázquez said many people came out in support of the program, while others were against it due to a lack of parking and enforcement.

Enforcement is a sticky subject because DCWP oversaw sidewalk cafés before the pandemic.

When questioned during the hearing, DOT officials said they would need to hire 30 additional staff to fulfill the needs of the program on a permanent basis.

“DOT is hiring the first full-time staff dedicated to this program, including our director of Open Restaurants, a dedicated enforcement team, application and plan reviewers, and corridor and parking planners,” DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez said at the public hearing. “This includes bilingual application reviewers and inspectors to ensure language is not a barrier to participation. The Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities is also hiring additional plan reviewers to focus on accessibility. We are eager to bring on these new team members who will ensure the program’s success and increased restaurant compliance.”

DOT has already hired a new team of 10 inspectors, and it will be staffing three main teams: enforcement, application and plan reviewers, and corridor and parking planners.

Since the city Open Restaurants Program began in 2020, DOT and other government agencies have already conducted nearly 60,000 inspections, and fined and removed restaurants that failed multiple inspections. In total, there have been 22 fines, 40 removals and 4,292 warnings. 

Some concerns raised with the expansion of outdoor dining after the onset of COVID-19, was the loss of 8,000 parking spaces and noise complaints.Photo Adrian Childress

A DOT source also told the Bronx Times that it does not envision house-like structures in any permanent program, but there will be a range of options for different types of setups that will be allowed and provide room for creativity as well. Additionally, the city’s top areas of focus for design are enhancing safe interactions between diners, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, ADA compliance and best practices for platforms and ramps.

Velázquez understands Open Restaurants saved jobs and businesses, but in order to make it a successful program, elected officials must craft a plan that works for everybody, she said.

“If we talk about enforcement, what does that really look like and what should the community expect,” she said. “It’s important for us to find that partnership between community and restaurants.”

One of the main issues raised was noise complaints at night brought on by outdoor dining, with many people at the hearing advocating for a curfew. Parking was also a major concern as the temporary program cost the city more than 8,000 parking spots, according to city officials. There were even districts in Manhattan where emergency vehicles could not find parking because of outdoor structures.

Another issue that will be examined is licensing for outdoor dining. During the pandemic restaurants were allowed to self-certify, however, getting a license from DCWP was not easy before COVID. In 2019, the average approval time was 467 days for enclosed cafés and 177 days for unenclosed cafés.

Lisa Sorin, executive director of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, is a staunch supporter of the Open Restaurants Program, calling it a lifeline for so many people and businesses. She said it would be great if the al fresco option became permanent.

Sorin said the outdoor structures on Arthur Avenue in Bronx Little Italy felt like people were “eating in another country.”

“Outdoor dining is inviting, and it gave families options,” Sorin said. “While the Bronx Chamber of Commerce supports outdoor dining, I also believe there has to be a level of uniformity of safety and cleanliness.”

Sorin said there were reports of structures filled with rats and some also housing the homeless, who used the structures to sleep in at night.

Ariel Espinal, general manager of operations at Mama Sushi in Throggs Neck, 3478 E. Tremont Ave., praised the city for implementing the program and said if it hadn’t been created many more businesses would have closed during the pandemic. Espinal and his colleagues understood it was important to be good neighbors, so his outdoor seating shuttered at 11 p.m., while the restaurant was open to 1 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends.

“If you ask me, I’m going to tell you it’s been beneficial for restaurants,” he said.

Velázquez knows this will be a long process and said there will not be a vote on her bill for several months.

The estimated timeframe for the permanent program, if approved, is for design and application details to take place by the fall of 2022, applications for the program would open in the winter and the program would launch in 2023.

Reach Jason Cohen at jcohen@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

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