NYC leaders are behind permanent outdoor dining. So what’s the delay?

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Last month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams took a hammer to an abandoned outdoor dining shed in Manhattan. This decision was a demonstration of how the city will handle deserted structures as well as an opportunity to announce unequivocally that the administration was fully behind the continuation of the Open Restaurants program.

For that to happen, however, Adams and the city council will have to use much finer instruments.

New York City’s Open Restaurants program has been operating temporarily since 2020, under a continually renewed emergency executive order citing the need to keep restaurants and bars operating while allowing for safe social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19. As Governor Kathy Hochul lets the statewide COVID-19 state of emergency expire, the Adams administration has said its temporary program will continue to operate until a permanent program is in place. square. “The expiration of the Governor’s emergency order will not affect the Open Restaurants program or any other emergency executive orders issued by the city,” a City Hall spokesperson wrote in an email.

The New York City Department of Transportation — which the Adams administration would like to see lead the permanent Open Restaurants program — has set a target date of 2023 for implementing the program, including an application period starting later this year. year. But with less than four months left in the year, the process of determining what that permanent program will look like is still ongoing. And while the city council is working on updating a bill that would create a permanent program, the Adams administration has argued that ongoing litigation against the city over outdoor dining stands in the way.

City Council took the first step to making outdoor dining permanent citywide earlier this year by approving a zoning amendment that expanded where sidewalk cafes were allowed. (Before the pandemic, restaurants in outlying boroughs were largely barred from being able to operate sidewalk cafes.) Assuming council passes legislation creating a framework for a permanent outdoor dining program — and that the mayor signs it off – the city agency tasked with running the program would then have to figure out some of its finer details – like the specifics of how the apps work or the specific sidewalk cafe designs – in the process of crafting the rules. It’s also possible, however, that council legislation will lay out some of these issues, leaving less for the agency to determine.

But at an August press conference on the outdoor dining sheds, Adams and his deputy mayor for operations, Meera Joshi, pointed to litigation against the city over outdoor dining as the main obstacle. progress of this ongoing program. “There is a small minority who have taken legal action to try to block this program,” Joshi said. “Unfortunately, this has crippled our plans to create a permanent program.”

There have been several lawsuits over outdoor dining since the program was launched, many of them citing complaints about excessive noise, litter and rodents which opponents say have been exacerbated by the program, and the outdoor catering sheds in particular. A recent lawsuit argued that the city should not be able to renew the temporary program on the basis of a public health emergency given that it cut many other pandemic-era initiatives like warrants of mask and vaccine requirements.

But the lawsuit, which the Adams administration said was actually impeding progress toward making restaurants open, argued the city erred in concluding the program wouldn’t have a big enough environmental impact to warrant a thorough environmental review. This kind of review, known as an environmental impact study, could take months.

In March, a state Supreme Court judge ruled against the city in the lawsuit, saying further environmental study was needed. The city is in the process of appealing this decision.

But despite legal challenges, the city council is working to update a bill introduced by council member Marjorie Velázquez in February that would make the Open Restaurants program permanent. Council leaders were unconcerned that ongoing litigation would stand in the way of the legislation passing, but neither the council president’s office nor the town hall offered an explanation for the mayor’s difference of opinion. and the council.

Asked about the ongoing litigation, Velázquez said that does not prevent the council from drafting legislation. “You have to let the courts play as they are,” she said.

According to a council source, legislation to make outdoor dining permanent could be ready as early as next week. Velázquez was more cautious in her estimate of when to expect an updated bill, telling City & State not to expect such legislation this month, and she noted that there were still lots of input on what the program should look like, including from other board members. “It was almost a 10-hour hearing,” Velázquez said, referring to a February hearing on the matter. “Everyone has something to say about it.”

A number of issues are still under discussion, including the details of how outdoor dining facilities will operate on the road (as opposed to sidewalks) as well as the licensing and fee structure. In the first version of Velázquez’s bill, restaurants would pay $1,050 for a license to operate a sidewalk or roadside cafe, and a renewal fee of $525.

Velázquez said she wants to explore ways to make outdoor dining as streamlined and affordable as possible, including considering a variable fee structure in which restaurants in denser areas must pay slightly higher fees. Creating an accessible application process is a priority not only for Velázquez, but also for the restaurant industry. “We want to reduce bureaucracy, reduce paperwork and reduce costs. So it’s not cost prohibitive and geographically restrictive like it was before the pandemic,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.

As for the outdoor dining sheds that have drawn fierce opposition, Velázquez said the council is trying to find a way to phase them out of the permanent schedule. “I think the biggest concern for a lot of people has been what we call these sheds,” she said, when asked what kind of feedback she gets from other board members. “We’re talking more about standardizing chairs and tables, and blocking traffic (items) like planters,” she added, describing what could replace sheds.

Although the Adams board and administration support the concept of permanent open restaurants, there is some disagreement about how it should work. One of the issues is determining which agency should be responsible for implementing and managing the permanent program. While the Adams administration wants the Department of Transportation to run the program, the council is seeking to cede that authority to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.

Rigie stressed the importance of moving this program forward regardless, noting that restaurants need clarity on the types of outdoor dining structures and materials that will be allowed in the permanent program – and therefore in which to continue to invest. . Still, he said he understood the delays. “It’s better for it to take a little longer and work than to rush and get it wrong,” he said.

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