It was a lifeline for one of the city’s most critical industries. Over a quarter million people living in NYC are employed by the restaurant industry and in May 2020, New York City was on track to lose 100,000 of those jobs. Sensing catastrophe, New York City Council introduced emergency legislation to help restaurants utilize temporary outdoor space on public sidewalks and parking spaces, salvaging our economy and our deteriorating sense of normalcy. While we zoomed theater, bleached delivery bags, and applauded at 7pm, the prospect of returning to restaurants heralded much-needed hope.
Two years have passed, and our world’s condition has evolved. 85% of adults living in NYC are fully vaccinated. Only .27% of those 85% have ever been hospitalized for COVID (hospitalizations for the flu are 10x that amount). As we transition from pandemic to endemic, the restaurant industry debate is changing from “how do we keep a crucial industry alive?” to “how do we utilize the public space once loaned to private companies during a devastating pandemic?” Over the next six months, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of City Planning (DCP) will hear New Yorkers’ feedback as the Open Restaurants program becomes a permanent fixture in our city.
As you might imagine, the topic is hardly one sided.
On February 5, The Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy (CUEUP) held a rally in the West Village called “Chuck The Sheds.” A slogan for the event reads, “Noise forever. Rats forever. Trash forever. Traffic forever. Impassable streets forever. Lives disrupted forever.” On their Instagram there is a compelling letter from Andrew Ansbro, President of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, an organization representing New York City Firefighters. In the letter, read to supporters at the event, Ansbro details several significant dangers associated with shed placement under the current Open Restaurants program. He writes, “sheds have narrowed the street to the point where we cannot safely and effectively raise ladders [to save residents] … If the street is narrowed by the placement of sheds to the point where the street is not much wider than a car it makes it difficult or impossible for us to set up a ladder/truck…” Ansbro’s open letter concludes by stating, “If you, or a loved one, has a shed in front of your building or on your block you should be concerned… lives are in danger.”
Dissent has also spread across our community boards. For decades before the pandemic, community boards would approve or reject all proposals for sidewalk cafes. Those recommendations were based on unique circumstances and an intimate understanding of each individual neighborhood. Today, DOT and the DCP are looking to amend legislation to circumvent those obligations by categorizing sheds as “roadway cafes.” A bit south of us, at Community Board 2, they write that the Open Restaurants plan “utterly disregards critical public safety impacts of roadway cafés and equity issues for residents and businesses – all for the benefit of one industry.” They continue stating, “The Proposed Actions represent a fundamental change in that it expands the geography of eating and drinking establishments to the public realm without sufficient study of the impacts.” In bypassing Community Boards, DOT and DCP are likely to disregard unique layouts of each NYC street, cultural identities of communities, unique building structures and many other quality of life details that community boards are so accustomed to protecting.
According to CUEUP, 62% of NYC community boards voted against permanent Open Restaurants. Further violations noted by various community boards include obstructed street signs, parking violations, extending beyond storefronts, blocking resident entryways, emergency road lanes blocked, fire hydrant obstruction, utility hardware obstruction, bike lane seating, impeded pedestrian walkways, vermin, noise and garbage, among others.
Simultaneously, it shouldn’t be too shocking to note that there are many people who love the Open Restaurants program. Over the past two years, this program has had a significant impact on NYC’s job creation. The program has helped save over 12,000 restaurants during the pandemic. It has also helped create jobs. On average, for every ten tables added, a restaurant will hire two servers and a busser. The program also sits fondly in our collective memory. We remember how important these open restaurants were for us. We remember that when we cheered out our windows every night, we cheered on those restaurants.
Restaurant owners aren’t the only ones hoping to maintain the new status quo. Despite the effectiveness of our vaccines, there are those who, justifiably, continue feeling unsafe when entering a crowded bar or restaurant and they find refuge in outdoor dining. There are also individuals who have remained unvaccinated, for whatever reason, and rely on outdoor seating as their only outlet to dine out.
We are becoming torn on this issue. Restaurants and their lobbyists want to keep their new land. Property owners probably want that also — who knows how high rents will soar when they realize their tenants have permanently attained more square footage. Most of us are grateful to have had this Open Restaurants program over the past two years. But it is important to look at this situation objectively. We must acknowledge the trash, the safety concerns, the vermin, the homeless people sleeping inside skeleton shacks rotting away, and the residents who decry a degrading quality of life from so much noise. At the same time, we must acknowledge the beauty, the joy, and the relief this program has brought so many of us during an extremely difficult period in our lives. Both realities exist together. Our goal should be to have our cake and eat it too. Our restaurants need to prosper if they’re going to make us cake. And if we help them prosper, we’d prefer to eat our cake somewhere pleasant and safe, not in a bike lane next to garbage.