City Council’s Piecemeal Approach to Permanent Outdoor Dining

Posted on: February 25th, 2022 at 5:02 am by

Photo: Eddie Panta

Yesterday’s Yea vote brings the city one big step closer to as-of-right outdoor seating in front of restaurants and bars, yet it’s still piecemealing the permanent plan into effect.

The passage of a bill to remove zoning restrictions on sidewalk and roadway cafes by City Council came as no surprise since the subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises voted in favor of the measure last week.

The legislative effort to make the emergency Covid-19 outdoor dining program permanent began in the previous administration. And because Mayor Adams has been pushing for this outcome since taking office, it’s never really been a question of if, but of how and when.

Photo: Eddie Panta

Answers to how the new program would be administered, and exactly when, didn’t come with the zoning text amendment City Council passed yesterday. Residents concerned about the impact on their quality of life and safety were left with little more than a plan to make a plan. The final piece of legislation that is to dictate the rules and regulations is not expected for a vote until late-Spring.

Questions on how the new program would be administered only increased since the subcommittee vote. The City’s original intent was to move jurisdiction on outdoor dining applications from Department Consumer and Worker Protection to the Department of Transportation. But the lead agency in charge is now up for grabs as well.

Opponents of the plan represented by local organizations like CUEUP were demanding a complete end to the current emergency program before any new, permanent program goes into effect. But if yesterday’s vote seems to be putting the cart before the horse, it’s because the Council had to act on a timeline set by the City Planning Commission’s vote in favor of the zoning change last November.

While the shacks that currently occupy the roadway outside of restaurants and bars won’t be part of the permanent program, it appears these existing outdoor dining structures, many of which are private cabins, will remain street legal well into 2023.

Just hours before yesterday’s vote, neighboring council members Chris Marte and Erik Bottcher invited Bronx councilmember Marjorie Velazquez, who Mayor Adams handpicked as the prime sponsor of the legislation, on a walking tour of outdoor dining in the streets of the historic districts of SoHo and the West Village.

In her introduction to the small group of residents, community board members and press, Velazquez made it clear that as a former NYU Stern student, she was well acquainted with these streets. However, those quaint, narrow streets are no longer as recognizable as they once were with all the outdoor dining shacks in the roadways and sidewalks.

As council members representing districts with the densest amount of outdoor dining, Bottcher and Marte are pushing for a more neighborhood-based approach to a permanent plan, not the one-size fits all currently on deck from City Planning and DOT. Both council members pointed out the streets in their districts couldn’t conform to what City Planning and DOT were currently proposing.

The inability to navigate the sidewalk was immediately apparent as the group made its way from SoHo to the West Village along Bleecker Street. The sidewalks were clearly obstructed not just by roadway shacks illegally encroaching up onto the sidewalk, but also because of oversized storefront vestibules.

Marte and Bottcher also noted the trash stuck between the street shacks, the ramshackle nature of the structures, and the takeover of the streets by one single private industry.

Community Board 2 member Carter Booth, pointed out how side-by-side shacks in the narrow street can’t comply with the 15-foot rule in the road, necessary to allow not just cars, but emergency vehicles to pass through.

Photo: Eddie Panta

The thirty-minute walking tour appears to have given a street level reality of how the outdoor dining program specifically impacts these two neighborhoods which have more street shacks than any other in the city.

Eventually all restaurants will need to reapply for the new program. But to which city agency remains unknown.

Council member Velazquez said “communities need to feel like they’re being heard.” in her opening statement before city council yesterday. But it remains to be seen if the “listening” Velazquez and her team came out for  in Soho and the West Village yesterday will find its way into any forthcoming legislation. What is clear, though, is that City Planning’s “envisioning process” has once again caused division amongst SoHo residents.

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