‘Open Streets’ Town Hall Yields More Questions than Answers

Posted on: January 14th, 2021 at 5:02 am by

Tuesday night’s Town Hall on Open Restaurants and Open Streets, hosted by Community Boards 3 and 6 – left residents with more questions than answers regarding the long-term impact these pandemic-era health and economic neighborhood solutions have on a post-COVID city.

However, the online meetup did bring a wide scope of information in terms of navigating the 25 different city agencies tasked with creating and enforcing guidelines for restaurants that expanded operation into the public sphere. 311 remains the primary portal for reporting complaints, as well the info center for restaurant owners on the latest revisions to the code enforcements of outdoor dining structures.

The Open Streets/Open Restaurants Town Hall was co-sponsored by Councilmember Carlina Rivera (District 2), Councilmember Margaret Chin (District 1), and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. (Chin wasn’t present, but her Chief of Staff, Gigi Li, who is running for her council seat, spoke in her place.) Most notably absent, though, were representatives from the area Business Improvement Districts, who were initially tapped by both Rivera and Brewer to create Open Streets at the height of the pandemic.

For locals, the fear of a political move to defer or privatize quality-of-life issues and overall management of the Open Streets and Restaurants programs to Business Improvement Districts was the main takeaway from the Town Hall. As was the fact that far too many city agencies are involved with implementing and enforcing the expansion of private business into the street.

Councilmember Rivera opened the conversation by explaining that the point of the Town Hall was to “gather feedback, to get recommendations, and as always to take constructive criticism.”

But while Rivera acknowledged the presence of “bad actors” operating under the Open Restaurants legislation, the councilmember did not posit ideas for improvement. It was Community Board members who offered constructive criticism. Rivera did, however, make it clear that while she supports permanent Open Restaurants beyond 2021, her legislation was only for Open Streets, and that Open Restaurants, Open Stores (non-restaurants) and Open Culture were new layers. Looking forward, additional legislation will be necessary for Open Restaurants to become permanent. And elected officials made it clear that community input would inform any permanency of these programs.

As previously reported, tales of upended traffic barriers and inequitable distribution of Open Streets are now commonplace. As displayed on Twitter, the general public, most notably cyclists, are typically supplying the manpower to fill in the gaps left by the BIDs and the NYPD. Tales of homeless people manning Open Street barriers for loose-change tips being the prime example.

Photo: Eddie Panta

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer raised the idea of a “Public Realm Czar,” an entity that would oversee the neighborhood program. While quickly suggesting the need for a better name, she felt the idea was good enough for the Mayor to hear. However, the ability to create block associations or community groups amidst the pandemic remains difficult and elected officials did not offer new ways for community members to to get involved. So, it appears, at least for now, BIDs remain the prime organizations called upon to facilitate these programs.

Photo: Eddie Panta

Besides DOT, DOB, NYPD, FDNY, a whole alphabet soup of other city city agencies are involved in the coordination and enforcement of the Open Streets and Restaurants programs. Even the Department of Cultural Affairs and homeless outreach workers are on patrol.

Whether or not the State Liquor Authority (SLA) would adjust its regulations to the idea of drinking in the “streeteries” remained an unanswered question Tuesday night.

Brewer also said that the Open Streets/Restaurants are the most important programs the city has besides the COVID-19 vaccine. Her two cents included the idea of public seating, whereby seating is made available to anyone with a receipt from a local establishment. (This idea also came from a concerned resident.)

Gigi Li, speaking on behalf of Councilmember Chin, largely echoed Rivera’s comments and said that feedback to Chin’s office on Open Streets and Open Restaurants ranged from “great to not ideal.”

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