On February 8, the New York City Council held a hearing to discuss up-to-date plans concerning the controversial Open Restaurants program. Officials from various city organizations met with hundreds of New Yorkers supporting and opposing the program. The hearing lasted nine hours and ended with the City Council voting to recommend a zoning amendment, removing limitations on where outdoor dining can occur and paving the way for a permanent program.
The permanent program will modify the current system. Perhaps the most noticeable alteration will be the extinction of our beloved/hated outdoor dining sheds. In their footprint will be “roadway barriers and tents or umbrellas, but not these full houses you’re seeing in the street,” according to Julie Schipper, the head of DOT’s Open Restaurants Program. The absence of roadside shacks may be the most obvious aesthetic adjustment, but frequent updates from city officials can be expected as the program nears permanence in the coming months.
Ydanis Rodriguez is the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation. In his written testimony, Mr. Rodriguez vaguely addresses some concerns such as noise and “sanitation” — while avoiding any direct engagement with recent NYFD concerns. The Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York released a statement detailing the dangers caused by the Open Restaurants program. Their concerns include being unable to access burning buildings because of the program’s permanent road obstructions. Even in a system without sheds, patrons would continue eating in the street and road barriers would remain necessary (for obvious reasons). What isn’t clear is how these permanent barriers will avoid obstructing emergency vehicles.
During the marathon hearing, The DOT came under fierce scrutiny for its inefficient track record and limited resources while managing such an extensive program. At one point, Councilmember Marjorie Velazquez asked Rodriguez to provide statistics regarding fines and violations. He did not have the information available. Velazquez (the primary architect of the bill), who made it clear from the beginning that her intention was to ensure that the program becomes permanent, reprimanded Rodriguez for not having such relevant information immediately at hand. When the ill-prepared Commissioner of the DOT was finally able to share the requested data, he cited 4,000 warnings resulting in only 22 fines and only 40 removed structures. For a program comprised of over 12,000 open restaurants.
In an effort to not help their case, DOT stated that they plan to add an additional 30 positions to manage the program’s restaurants. That is one staff member for every four hundred restaurants citywide. “Thirty people could do one district and you could still have problems,” noted Former Borough President Gale Brewer, now our Upper West Side City Councilmember. During the testimony, a Councilmember asked a Brooklyn Community Board member how long it typically takes the DOT to install a speed bump on a single street. The response was “two to three years.”
Ten days later, the City Council removed DOT from the bill. That doesn’t mean the agency won’t end up managing the program in the end, but it is a hopeful sign that the city isn’t simply gifting this massive responsibility to the first department looking for extra funding.
Near the end of an exhausting, contentious day, New Yorker Janet Hershberger spoke. “I think this should be a ballot referendum,” she said, “let the people of New York speak. Put it on the ballot in November.” But of course, this isn’t how the City Council and Mayor’s office is managing the Open Restaurants program.