Potential for Permanent Crisis as Protests Continue over Open Restaurants
Despite the bitter cold this past Saturday, the “Chuck The Sheds” protest had a larger than expected turnout. Not to mention, their effort is gaining traction with some elected officials and local media. Almost a hundred protesters waving signs and chanting “chuck the sheds,” marched from Father Demo Square in the Village to Washington Square Park where they held a rally.
Organized by the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, a citywide coalition of neighborhood groups, the protest was planned ahead of Tuesday’s City Council hearing on the proposal to create a new, permanent outdoor dining program that would essentially give restaurants as-of-right use of the roadbed directly outside their storefront. Gone too would be zoning restrictions on sidewalk cafes, but those licenses would still be vetted by local community boards, whereas the Department of Transportation (DOT) would become the lead agency for Open Restaurant outdoor dining applications.
It’s worth noting that all of the speakers made clear their support of the original intent of Open Restaurants – to help buoy the nightlife industry during the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak. However, QUEup and their followers believe the temporary program should end with the pandemic.
Protesters pushed back against the criticism that they were primarily concerned about parking personal cars. Instead, members spoke to issues about quality of life, safety, and sanitation. Among the most common complaints were noise from large crowds and music speakers, rats nesting beneath the sheds, and the issue of emergency services being impeded by shacks narrowing streets and blocking direct access to building entrances.
Much of the anger, however, was leveled not so much at the outdoor dining program, but the bad operators. The websites and social media of QUEup and other neighborhood groups are full of examples of illegal shacks, like the now-infamous double-decker shanty, fully enclosed shacks with A/C units, as well as abandoned shacks collecting garbage.
With outdoor dining occupying entire blocks in some parts of the city, the street level reality no longer jives with what City Council had originally referred to as Al Fresco dining when the Open Restaurants program was first launched in the midst of the pandemic.
In speaking at the Saturday protest, State Assembly Member Deborah Glick said that the City can’t reference Paris anymore because Paris already ended the outdoor structures, and sidewalk cafes now close at 10pm.
Problems with outdoor dining have especially plagued downtown districts; Community Board 2, which includes the West Village, Soho, Little Italy, and parts of Chinatown has more outdoor dining applications than any other board in the city, as well as boasting the distinction of being the community board with the densest number liquor licenses.
The Department of City Planning (DCP) together with DOT has been working towards a permanent program since the final days of the de Blasio administration. Both DOT and DCP heard a litany of complaints from over sixty residents speaking at a Community Board hearing last July.
Issues ranged from live bands in the streets, the lack of safe passage on the sidewalk, and structures blocking the bike lanes. Roadside dining goes well past the restaurant storefront on some streets, too. CB2 also released a scathing resolution against the city’s plan back in September. Their rejection was largely based on a vote of no confidence in DOT to enforce the new, permanent program. (62% of the city’s Community Boards also rejected the new measure.)
Opponents of the program don’t believe guidelines work because DOT doesn’t have the manpower or the procedures in place to enforce 311 complaints. When DOT presented its new permanent plan to the public it said that their agency would have twelve officials to address 311 complaints. Currently there are approximately 12,000 outdoor dining structures in the city’s Open Restaurants program citywide.
Over a thousand of these outdoor dining structures are in District 1, which gave newly elected Council Member Chris Marte good reason to attend the rally in support of residents. “Listen to the people in the community. And do away with these sheds,” he pleaded with other elected officials voting on the measure this week.
Marte then explained the safety hazard sheds create in narrowing the street by referencing a near catastrophic incident last year on Thompson Street when an FDNY truck couldn’t open its doors because they were blocked by a shed.
Privatizing public ares is another key complaint from protesters, who described Open Restaurants as a “land grab.” Echoing this sentiment, Deborah Glick stated that, “the issue is really how do we use the public space that we own and not give it to private interest.”
Indeed, permanent Open Restaurants would most likely benefit private business and landlords who have already started assessing storefront values based on the ability to expand out, into the roadbed which can potentially triple the square footage leased. In speaking for the public interest, Glick went on to say, “you can only enjoy it if you have the money.”