City Council Says Let Them Eat Cake – Outdoors!

Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. at a pre-stated meeting press conference.
Credit John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

The City Council today took its first step in making the outdoor dining program established soon after the start of the coronavirus pandemic permanent, by passing zoning changes that’ll allow the practice in more parts of the city.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said the program – which then-Mayor Bill de Blasio set up through an executive order nearly two years ago – has been a lifeline for restaurants trying to stay afloat during the worst days of the pandemic.

“As our city seeks to recover, this zoning change is the first step in creating a permanent program that is better organized and regulated, more equitable, and balances the health of our restaurants with the needs of local neighborhoods,” Adams said.

Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. (D – Bronx), who chairs the council’s land use committee, emphasized the importance of using community input in the bill writing process.

“Now that we have approved the zoning changes that will pave the way for a permanent outdoor dining program, we must use the valuable feedback we received from New Yorkers at our Land Use hearing to craft legislation that balances the needs of all stakeholders,” Salamanca Jr. said.

Under current city law, restaurants are only permitted to take up city street space for outdoor dining in areas that are specifically zoned for it – mostly in Manhattan. The temporary program lifted these restrictions and allowed restaurants across the city to use sidewalks and parking space for outdoor dining.

While the zoning change passed the council with a strong majority, many members who voted in favor of it expressed the need to make sure any permanent program has far stricter regulations than the temporary one. For instance, Councilman Christopher Marte (D – Manhattan) said – with an absence of any real regulations – many outdoor structures erected under the temporary program have caused many unintended problems. Marte recounted seeing some of these issues this morning, while touring his own district with Councilwoman Marjorie Velázquez (D – Bronx).

“We saw five feet tall piles of trash,” Marte said. “Dead rats. Abandoned and broken sheds. Cars and bikes not being able to go down the street. And puddles of sludge. We think it’s sludge, might be worse. What we’ve seen these past two years is that the temporary program has not worked. There’s been almost no enforcement or oversight.”

Six council members, however, see issues with the outdoor dining program they don’t think can be resolved through the legislative process and voted against the change. One of those council members was Darlene Mealy (D – Brooklyn), who said she’s against making outdoor dining permanent mainly because it’s reducing the number of available parking spots.

“On my way coming here, I just saw one of the outdoor restaurants, they have clothes for sale and that’s parking,” Mealy said. “And we’re not thinking about the people who are practically sleeping in their cars, because it’s no parking.”

But Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, was quick to celebrate the move in a release.

“We commend the City Council for approving the Open Restaurants text amendment,” Rigie said, “which creates a clean slate to determine all of the details of a permanent outdoor dining program and expands where sidewalk cafes can be located to provide a more equitable alfresco dining program to all neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.”