Council’s piecemeal approach to permanent outdoor dining

Photo: Eddie Panta

Yesterday’s Yes vote brings the city a big step closer to full-right outdoor seating in front of restaurants and bars, but it continues to fragment the permanent plan in effect.

The passing of a bill to remove zoning restrictions on sidewalks and roadside cafes by City Council came as no surprise as the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee voted in favor of the measured last week.

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

Photo: Eddie Panta

Answers to how the new scheme would be administered, and exactly when, did not come with the zoning bylaw amendment that city council passed yesterday. Residents concerned about the impact on their quality of life and safety had little more than a plan to make a plan. The final bill that is to dictate the rules and regulations is not expected to be voted on until late spring.

Questions about how the new program would be administered have only increased since the subcommittee voted. The city’s original intention was to transfer jurisdiction over outdoor dining requests from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to the Department of Transportation. But the main agency in charge is now also up for grabs.

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

Although the cabanas that currently occupy the roadway outside restaurants and bars are not part of the permanent program, it appears that these existing outdoor dining structures, many of which are private cabanas, will remain legal until 2023.

Just hours before yesterday’s vote, neighboring council members Chris Marte and Erik Bottcher invited Bronx Councilwoman Marjorie Velazquez, whom Mayor Adams has chosen as the legislation’s lead sponsor, for a mealtime walking tour. outdoors 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 the press, Velazquez made it clear that as a former NYU Stern student, she knows these streets well. However, these quaint, narrow streets are no longer as recognizable as they once were with all the outdoor dining shacks on the roads and sidewalks.

As council members representing districts with the most 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 the City Planning deck and DOWRY. Both council members pointed out that the streets in their districts could not conform to what city planning and the DOT were currently proposing.

The inability to navigate the sidewalk was immediately apparent as the group made their way from SoHo to the West Village along Bleecker Street. The sidewalks were clearly obstructed not only by highway shacks illegally encroaching on the sidewalk, but also by oversized vestibules in front of the stores.

Marte and Bottcher also noted the trash wedged between street shacks, the dilapidated nature of the structures, and the takeover of the streets by a single private industry.

Community Board 2 member Carter Booth pointed out that side-by-side shacks on the narrow street cannot comply with the 15-foot rule on the road, necessary to allow not only cars, but also vehicles to urgency to pass.

Photo: Eddie Panta

The thirty-minute walking tour seems to have given a street-level reality on how the outdoor dining program specifically affects 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 at which municipal agency remains unknown.

Council member Velazquez said “communities need to feel like they are being heard.” in his opening statement to city council yesterday. But it remains to be seen whether the ‘listening’ Velazquez and his team showed yesterday in Soho and the West Village will find its way into future legislation. What is clear, however, is that the city planning “visioning process” has once again caused division among SoHo residents.

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