Alfresco forever

Jane Jacobs emphasized the value of eyes on the street in bonding the neighborhood and keeping it safe. What would the great city planner think as New York debates the challenge of having all those butts sit on the street, part of the city’s outdoor dining revolution?

This question, more gracefully phrased by some proponents, is at the heart of one of the greatest urban planning moments in modern New York history.

The pandemic may not have changed everything. But one thing it has surely changed is our relationship to eating out, on the sidewalks and streets of New York.

Prior to COVID-19, New York had a rather ambivalent relationship with outdoor dining.

Our traffic, our crowds and our zoning rules have all worked against this. In a way, we just couldn’t see ourselves as Paris.

But when the pandemic made indoor dining a deadly danger, Mayor Bill de Blasio threw a lifeline at the city’s restaurant business by suspending tough outdoor cafe rules and creating a program of emergency which is one of the successes of an otherwise dark time.

From perhaps 1,500 outdoor cafes before the pandemic, disproportionately in Manhattan, outdoor dining has expanded to some 12,000 establishments in every corner of the city. Restaurants have done everything from setting up a table and chairs out front to converting parking spaces into pop-up dining areas.

City council vote

The last time so many shacks and makeshift structures were built around the city was probably the Great Depression, when Hoover towns sprouted in Central Park. It all felt like a glorious COVID visualization of that old epithet that New York would be a great place — if they ever finished it.

But all this was also “temporary”. Until now. City Council is due to vote on Thursday, Feb. 24, to authorize a permanent outdoor dining program, replacing that temporary free with a more measured and managed program that supporters say will capture the vitality and business benefits of the pandemic program while mitigating the noise, vermin and occasional chaos of today’s dining scene.

“After nearly two years of temporary rules to respond to the pandemic, now is the time to create a program that learns from the past two years and addresses the concerns that have been raised,” said Board member Rafael Salamanca. Bronx, who chairs the Land Use Committee.

The city council’s vote is actually the beginning of the creation of this program, not the end. The council’s action will repeal old zoning that restricted outdoor dining and consolidate the power to make new rules into a single body, the Department for Transport, which has started to make the new rules.

“We are not considering sheds”

And this being in New York, there’s already disagreement about what permanent outdoor dining should look like.

The Adams administration is proposing to eliminate these plywood shacks and other semi-permanent structures, in favor of “flexible and temporary” seating, as Transport Commissioner Ydanis Rodriquez told a hearing.

“We do not envision hangars in the permanent program,” said DOT Open Restaurant Program Director Julie Schipper. “We don’t anticipate that. What would be on the roadway are barriers and tents or umbrellas. But not those packed houses you see on the street.

The goal, she said, is a post-COVID program “that can go on for years and years and years” even if indoor dining resumes, “where you can eat out when it looks nice and comfortable, but you don’t need to be in a house on the street.

Schipper made the comments during the hearing in direct response to a complaint from City Council member Sandy Nurse of Bushwick that rats were nesting under the floorboards of these wooden dining structures.

But the promise to eradicate them – structures like rats – was greeted as a lack of imagination by the urban architects who worked on the scheme.

“We think this is a big mistake,” said Michael Chen, co-founder of Design Advocates, a business network providing pro bono services to small businesses and community groups. “Those of us in professional design circles are trying to push that away.”

“Are we really talking about a disposable series of seasonal builds? Chen asked. “That would be unfortunate.” Chen said it would be a “tremendous wasted opportunity” not to use this moment to reinvent the overall use of its sidewalks and pavements in New York City.

Safer and healthier structures

Complaints about many pandemic catering structures, Chen said, stem not from their semi-permanence but, in fact, from the way they were launched without too much time to think and design.

Better designed structures, not of plywood but, for example, of extruded fiberglass, can be safer, more comfortable, more hygienic and quieter for the neighbourhood.

“You can’t have an ephemeral structure and expect it to dampen noise,” he explained.

“This process needs an architect.”

The city is currently drafting permanent guidelines for outdoor dining and hopes to introduce a draft version in March. A coalition calling itself Alfresco NYC held workshops of architects, designers and other stakeholders to help shape these guidelines.

The current structures and rules remain for this year and the city plans to bring the permanent rules into effect in 2023.

Great variation

“This is going to be a very difficult policy to implement,” observed Councilman Erik Bottcher, whose district stretches from the west side of Columbus Circle to Greenwich Village. “The reason I say that is because we live in a city where every neighborhood is different from the next.”

Even within his district, which Bottcher said has more restaurants than any other in the city, the impact of the temporary program has been highly variable.

“There are neighborhoods where it works well, well done to Chelsea Square Diner,” Bottcher said. “There are neighborhoods where it really posed problems. As on Sullivan and Thompson Street, the entire block is one long shed.

Bottcher said he sent his staff to see if the temporary structures and cafes complied with the rules.

“93% were non-compliant with at least one DOT rule,” Bottcher reported, “some minor, but some major, like blocking a fire hydrant. It was very frustrating trying to make enforce the current rules by the DOT, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

During the hearing, Bottcher drove the point home to Rodriguez.

“Commissioner, what do you say to my constituents who really don’t trust the DOT to enforce future rules when you haven’t been able to enforce the current rules.”

Rodriquez said the department had been lenient under the temporary program, which after all was created to save struggling restaurants. He promised tougher enforcement under the permanent program and said the department was hiring more inspectors.

About Justin Howze

Check Also

Belleville’s SilverLake has plenty of green space – by design

When SilverLake Apartments opened in Belleville last March, the 232-unit community was already 87% rented, …