NYC Council passes compromise outdoor dining program

The pandemic-era program will become permanent, but with some changes.

City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez sponsored the bill.

City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez sponsored the bill. John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

New Yorkers can continue to enjoy the city’s culinary offerings outdoors in all seasons of the year – that is, if they’re eating at sidewalk cafes.

The City Council passed a bill to create a permanent version of the COVID-19-era outdoor dining program on Thursday by a vote of 34 to 11. The passage of the bill – a win for Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, City Council sponsor Marjorie Velázquez, and hospitality and urban planning groups that have long pushed for a permanent program – was nonetheless met with some objections. 

Those objections came both from fans of outdoor dining who wanted to see more flexibility in how restaurants can operate, as well as critics of the current program who have raised concerns about the complaints that outdoor dining garners from residents. Concerns were also raised about the capability of the city Department of Transportation – the agency that the bill tasks with establishing the permanent program – to lead the rule-making process, including determining design guidelines.

The permanent program will allow sidewalk cafes to operate year-round, but unlike in the current temporary program, outdoor dining set-ups will only be allowed in the roadway from April through November. This seasonal approach to roadway dining is one of the compromises in the bill, and some restaurants have raised concerns that the costs and hassle of taking down and putting back up the roadway dining set-ups twice a year will be needlessly burdensome and lead to lost business. Businesses will need licenses to operate sidewalk cafes and roadway dining, and they will have to pay fees set on a sliding scale based on where in the city the business is.

Open streets advocates who have pushed for a fully year-round permanent program still call the bill’s passage a success, though. “Almost every victory you ever get in politics is also a compromise,” said Sara Lind, co-executive director of Open Plans. Lind said that she hoped to see flexibility in the design guidelines during DOT’s rule-making process and expressed hope that the city could eventually move toward a fully year-round permanent program, though she noted that would probably require another piece of legislation.

Council members who, for varied reasons, voted against the bill on Thursday included Democrats Charles Barron, Erik Bottcher, Bob Holden, Christopher Marte, Darlene Mealy, Lincoln Restler, Althea Stevens and Kalman Yeger, along with Republicans David Carr, Vickie Paladino and Inna Vernikov.

Restler told City & State after the vote that he also wants to see a fully year-round program that makes it as easy as possible for restaurants to participate. Stevens told City & State after the vote that she is concerned that the legislation doesn’t allow communities to have enough input on what outdoor dining will look like.