Council introduces bill to allow outdoor dining on sidewalks, streets

outdoor seating
An illustration of outdoor seating at Negril BK, a Park Slope Caribbean restaurant on Fifth Avenue.
Rockwell Group

The Council introduced a new bill to allow outdoor dining on sidewalks, streets, and other open spaces on May 28, aiming to give restaurateurs a lifeline to serve customers al fresco and at a safe social distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Speaker Corey Johnson.

“As New Yorkers we have so much to brag about, but our city’s amazing and diverse restaurants are really at the top of everyone’s list, which is why we must do everything we can to help this iconic, diverse, and now struggling industry get through this incredibly painful and difficult time,” Johnson said at a digital press conference Thursday.

If it were signed into law, the bill, co-signed by the speaker and 10 fellow city legislators, would allow restaurants, bars, and food vendors to apply with the city to use public or private open space for seating.

According to one city legislator, the lawmakers pushed for the move after Mayor Bill de Blasio failed to provide a plan to institute outdoor seating, which has become common in other cities in the United States and Europe, as governments try to help ailing businesses during the pandemic.

“When it comes to open space and just streets in general, I personally don’t have the confidence that the mayor has really been an outside-the-box thinker about rethinking street space,” said Williamsburg Councilman Antonio Reynoso, a co-sponsor of the bill.

In his daily press conference on Thursday, Hizzoner noted that restaurants going back to serving patrons on-site was not part of the first phase of the city’s reopening, which he expects to happen in the first half of June — and expressed his ‘hope’ that an outdoor dining service plan could be put in place soon.

“This is not a phase one thing, going to say this clear as a bell,” de Blasio said. “But we’re going to be working constantly with that industry to see what makes sense. And I’m hopeful that outdoors can be a big part of that solution.”

But Johnson, a 2021 mayoral candidate, said that the city should expedite implementation of that framework, so bureaucrats and businesses can hit the ground running once they reach a later stage of the reopening.

“We have to start this work right now, we should not wait any further because we want to be ready for when it’s actually possible to do this type of work and we have to get it right,” he said.

The proposed law would have the Department of Transportation locate suitable spaces across the city for outdoor seating — including sidewalks, pedestrian plazas, on-street parking, or other privately-owned spaces with the consent of the owners.

Johnson said that eateries could use models provided by Manhattan architect David Rockwell, who has worked with the nonprofit the NYC Hospitality Alliance to design templates for restaurants and bars

A template of sidewalk and street seating by architects at Rockwell Group.Rockwell Group

Businesses will have to apply to the Department of Consumer Affairs — the agency which provides sidewalk cafe permits — to use one of these DOT-designated spaces, while also following guidance on social distancing and health and safety regulations which the Department of Health will formulate.

Restaurants with sidewalks that would already be allowed to set up seating under the city’s zoning laws can also apply with the DCA to use the space without having to go through the usual public process involving presentations to community boards.

The temporary permits would expire by October 31 or when social distancing restrictions are lifted, whichever comes first, according to the bill, which also states that the DOT must post the locations they choose online and update the sites at least once a week.

One Bedford-Stuyvesant restaurant owner slammed the bill, which puts the onus on city transportation gurus to designate which spaces are eligible for sidewalk cafes, arguing that law changes should make it easier for them to apply for and set up their own al fresco seating rather than wait on city agencies to decide where they can and can’t move outside.

“Waiting for the city, that’s a joke. We need to have real tools and we need to have them now,” said Charlotta Janssen, the owner of Chez Oskar on Malcom X Boulevard, who has previously pushed for opening public space for dining.

The speaker said on Thursday that stakeholders can still lobby with DOT for locations, including business improvement districts, community boards, and associations representing establishments, adding that he hopes choosing sites can be collaborative.

However, the legislation does not have any provision for business owners to individually propose sites to the agency, or to set them up and receive permits after the fact.

Janssen said she does not have the time to wait on the city to designate her corner at Decatur Street viable for outdoor seating, and that representatives should get rid of the bureaucracy involved in getting the permits, rather than creating new hurdles.

“They’re like, ‘Oh we’re going to cut this red tape and put in new red tape,'” she said. “Just give us a few rules and we can do it and you can come by and sign off on it. Make it an easy process.”