Whether it’s a cold winter night or a muggy Saturday in July, millions of New Yorkers have enjoyed new opportunities for outdoor dining. Most of them, having too much fun to follow Twitter headlines and debates, would be shocked to find out that their beloved show is at risk. But it is. The City Hall is The rumors say that, toying with a future that eliminates the option for New Yorkers to dine out in the winter months. But the year-round option is crucial; if we don’t pass a bill protecting that, outdoor dining as we know it today is effectively dead.
A year-round program will not necessarily preserve the streets as they exist today. A permanent bill, even one that codifies the winter meal option, will include design guidelines and regulations that mitigate current problems. You can require movable tables and chairs, for example, instead of walls and ceilings. It would also require rat mitigation, trash and snow removal, accessibility, and standard hours of operation to address noise concerns. With these new guidelines, some restaurants may, in fact, become seasonal. But restaurants that rely on the business and revenue generated from curbside dining can continue to thrive.
Dilapidated structures must be torn down, not even the most ardent advocate of outdoor dining disagrees. But to discard the good with the bad is myopic. We know that restaurants are hesitant to invest in better structures until they know what the permanent program will look like. Why would they, when any investment they make today could be made illegal by legislation tomorrow? So our delay makes the situation worse.
The problem with seasonality comes down to storage. A partial year program will require restaurants to remove and store tables, chairs and other materials for many months. The companies have already communicated that they will not be able to do that, removing the program entirely. It happened in Paris: between 2021 and 2022, the newly enacted seasonal system reduce the number of restaurant terraces on the sidewalks by two thirds, from 12,000 to 4,000. There are many reasons to assume that the same thing will happen here.
Not only will the number of participating restaurants decrease, but also the diversity. The businesses with the resources to remove and store equipment will be the restaurants and wealthy chains, relegating this lucrative program to already affluent New Yorkers and neighborhoods. Do we want to increase inequalities? Or can we see this new frontier as an opportunity for growth? The Open Restaurants program brought outdoor dining to new districts — including many low-income or black and brown neighborhoods. Eliminating a year-round program jeopardizes the revenue these restaurants now depend on and excludes residents from the new dining options they already enjoy in other neighborhoods.
If you’re concerned about giving up valuable space for private use, consider that outdoor dining only uses about 1% of your curb space, space that’s almost entirely used for free vehicle storage. Talk about a private giveaway! The city will gain much more in tax revenue of Restaurants Open than it currently does from the parking lot. And restaurants will pay a fee to participate. The fee should be low enough for small restaurants, but high enough to ensure that restaurants do not leave unused structures on the street.
Restaurants are also amazing job creators, but a seasonal program will mean job losses. Is now, in the face of the looming fiscal crisis, really the time to jeopardize a program that provides so many jobs and so much tax revenue? All because some empty sheds have created unsightly conditions that could be fixed with a permanent program?
And yet, it seems our elected officials are willing to let outdoor dining die, as a seasonal show almost certainly would. On March 8, Council President Adrienne Adams gave her State of the City address. She never mentioned outdoor dining. Word on the street, and sometimes from his own lips — is that he just doesn’t like the show. Perhaps these chosen ones do not dine outside of themselves. But it’s your job to speak up—and lead—for the millions of New Yorkers who do.
With the right leadership, the permanent year-round guidelines of Open Restaurants could unite us. Opponents see problem areas fixed; proponents get thriving and vibrant urban landscapes. We all have curbs that are priced right for value, clean streets, driven local businesses, and an outdoor snack any time of year.
Lind is director of strategy at Open Plans, where she develops and implements a legislative and policy agenda that includes an Office of Public Space Management, block-level democracy, and streamlining the public space permitting process to make streets and city more livable.