More than 11,000 restaurants currently participate in the Open Restaurant program. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced four city-wide zoning change proposals to support small businesses, create more grocery stores and improve accessibility to public transportation. One of the proposals, the change to the zoning text for permanent open restaurants, aims to establish a permanent open restaurant program by removing geographic restrictions on the location of sidewalk cafes.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of restaurants were closed for indoor dining and limited to take-out and delivery. While these restrictions were created in the interest of safety, the loss of income from indoor meals has had an impact on the financial health of the city’s restaurants.
The Open Restaurant program was created last summer to help restaurants expand or create outdoor dining structures on sidewalks and on the street near curbs so people can safely lay out and dine. . Before the pandemic, there were just over 1,000 restaurants across town that had some sort of sidewalk cafe, which had to go through a thorough review process. The open restaurant program has eliminated the lengthy review process by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which currently includes a potential review by Consumer, City Council and community councils. The program did not require a participation fee. The Open Restaurant program saved approximately 100,000 jobs in more than 11,000 participating restaurants. The current Open Restaurant program expires at the end of 2022. For CityEarthprevious coverage of the Open Restaurants program, click here.
If approved, the permanent open restaurant program will allow restaurants to continue to use the adjacent sidewalk and roadside road space in front of the restaurant for alfresco dining. The program will include both sidewalk and sidewalk cafes and will be administered by the Department of Transportation.
DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman described the program during the Planning Commission review session on June 21, 2021. According to Commissioner Gutman, all restaurants with a ground floor are eligible for request year-round access to a sidewalk or road. The opening hours must be in accordance with what the Ministry of Consumer and Worker Protection allows at the moment, i.e. until midnight Sunday to Thursday and until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Outdoor dining areas must be ADA compliant and will be subject to clear access and location criteria and distance from obstacles. For street cafes, developments will be authorized in the parking lanes with the exception of certain prohibited areas, and the development must maintain public safety with access to standpipes and the visibility of road signs.
The Department of Transport would establish an office to administer the program. Restaurants will receive four-year licenses and can apply online. While there will always be a public review process, it would not be as long as the current public review process for sidewalk cafes before the temporary open restaurant program. The details of this public review process will need to be worked out through changes to agency rules by the Department of Transportation and to local legislation by city council.
Currently, the proposal is before local community councils. Community councils have until September 28 to hold hearings and vote on the proposal before it is referred to the Planning Commission for public hearing and approval. In addition to the public review process, the Department of Transportation is still accepting public comments on the current open restaurant program and will use the feedback to help shape the permanent restaurant program.
CityEarth plans to follow up with a message that tracks community board votes.
Through: Veronique Rose (Veronica is the CityLaw Scholar and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2018.)