Outdoor dining in New York City would become permanent, allowing year-round sidewalk cafés but only allowing roadway dining – or “streeteries” – on a seasonal basis, under the latest version of a bill introduced by City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez on Thursday.
New York City’s pandemic-era Open Restaurants program – one of the last remaining pandemic-era programs – is still in effect on a temporary basis, but City Hall and the City Council have been going back and forth for more than a year on how to build out a permanent program. The bill introduced by Velázquez on Thursday is the latest attempt to set a framework for a permanent version, which would be run by the Department of Transportation.
“Outdoor dining was a lifeline for our city during the pandemic, and I am so grateful to the many people who worked together to make it happen,” Velázquez said in a statement. “After thoughtful conversations with consumers, business owners, my City Council colleagues, and city agencies, we have created a program that will continue to serve our restaurants, residents, and visitors.”
The prior version of this bill also specified that streeteries would only be allowed on a seasonal basis, which elicited pushback from some restaurant owners and advocates for open space. (The current temporary Open Restaurants program does not have seasonal limits for when restaurants can put out tables, chairs or other structures in the roadway.) The latest version of the bill slightly extends when roadway dining would be allowed. The prior version prohibited them from operating between November 1 and March 31, while the new version prohibits them between November 30 to March 31. Last year, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams made it clear that her personal view was that outdoor dining should only be on the sidewalk.
The updated bill also adds some technical language, such as the role of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in signing off on any roadway dining or sidewalk cafe in a historic district or landmark site within 10 business days of receiving an application.
It also gets appears to leave out a distinction in the prior version of the bill between a “small sidewalk cafe” – defined as a “unenclosed sidewalk cafe containing no more than a single row of tables and chairs” occupying a small stretch along the property line – and a “sidewalk cafe,” defined as a portion of the restaurant operating on the sidewalk that is either enclosed or unenclosed. The new bill doesn’t mention a “small sidewalk café.”
The new bill extends the length of a license to operate a sidewalk café or roadway dining from two to four years, with the fee for either set at $1,050. Restaurants would also be charged consent fees based on the amount of space their outdoor dining takes up and where they are in the city. In the city’s old sidewalk cafe program, consent fees cost thousands or tens of thousands, depending on their size.
This bill includes some details on the fee rates for roadway cafés and sidewalk cafés, creating four different sectors of the city – the exact geographic definitions to be determined by the Department of Transportation – and charging an annual fee per square foot based on which sector the restaurant is located in. For sidewalk cafés, the least expensive rate (Sector 1) would be $6 per square foot, and the most expensive (Sector 4) would be $31 per square foot. Sector 4 is broadly defined as an area south of 125th Street in Manhattan.
The establishment of a permanent outdoor dining program has been held up in part by lawsuits, but also by disagreements between City Hall and the council on what the program should look like. The City Council initially wanted the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to run the program, as it ran the pre-pandemic sidewalk cafés program. The administration wanted the program to be run by the Department of Transportation, which manages the temporary program that is currently in place. The council appeared to relent on that issue last year, and the Department of Transportation would now manage the permanent program under this bill.
On Thursday, City Hall had only good things to say about the latest bill. “The temporary Open Restaurants program saved 100,000 jobs and countless local restaurants at the height of the pandemic, while helping the city reimagine its public spaces. It also left hundreds of abandoned sheds on our streets that have become havens for rats and eyesores for New Yorkers,” a statement attributed to Mayor Eric Adams read. “For months, I have been saying loud and clear that outdoor dining is here to stay and we need to get it right. Our administration has been working tirelessly with Speaker Adams, Council Member Velázquez, and all of our partners in the City Council to craft this program, and today, we are one big step closer to delivering it.”
A council spokesperson touted the latest bill as one that prioritizes affordability and simplifies the licensing process. “We have been centering affordability for our prized small businesses in these efforts,” a statement from the council read, “while ensuring that a permanent outdoor dining program for our city strikes the right balance for restaurants, neighborhoods, and all New Yorkers.”
Since it has the support of the mayor and the speaker’s office, the council spokesperson said it’s likely the bill could be passed within the next several weeks.
Open Plans, an organization that advocates for open streets programs, also welcomed the bill. “With this bill, business owners and DOT can finally move ahead together and begin a new, improved phase of the beloved Open Restaurants program,” Sara Lind, co-executive director of Open Plans, said in an emailed statement. But Lind’s statement suggested they want to see roadway dining allowed year-round too, adding, “Warming winter temperatures will continue to make outdoor dining feasible for most of the year and we believe giving the option for restaurants to participate year-round would offer the most value to businesses, diners, and city coffers. But with the clock ticking on the need for a permanent bill, City Council’s action is welcome news.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Coltin. This story has been updated with comment from a council spokesperson.