StreetsPAC's Testimony to City Council on Outdoor Dining

We testified today at the New York City Council's Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection and Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises joint hearing regarding the city's permanent outdoor dining program. Our full testimony follows below.

New York City’s Open Restaurants program is responsible for having saved hundreds, if not thousands, of the city’s restaurants, by and large small, family-owned businesses, which faced overwhelming challenges at the depth of the pandemic, along with tens of thousands of attendant restaurant jobs, and has proved overwhelmingly popular with diners, who have voted convincingly with their cash and credit cards to make the program permanent.

That isn’t to say that the program is perfect, nor that some of the criticism of the Open Restaurants program isn’t valid. There are legitimate concerns about noise on blocks that mix commercial activity with residences, many outdoor dining structures are flimsy or sited haphazardly, and more than a few pose a hazard to safe cycling. But these are fixable flaws.

Ideally, as a long-term goal, the city should expand the width of sidewalks in places in which outdoor dining has proved popular, allowing for expanded café space immediately adjacent to the storefronts of participating restaurants. In places where that’s not possible, restaurants should pay a fee for using street space, or the city should create communal spaces open to anyone, along the lines of the Streets Seats program. In the shorter term, however, there are a number of things we can and should do to improve the Open Restaurants program. These include:

  • Shifting from more fully built structures to movable tables, chairs, and umbrellas, like in the Meatpacking District or Bryant Park.

  • Situating seating immediately adjacent to the curb, with physically protected accommodations where possible for existing curbside bike lanes rerouted between restaurant setups and motor-vehicle lanes.

  • Imposing strict design guidelines that limit the heights of restaurant structures to allow for better visibility, and to ensure that sidewalks are fully and easily passable.

  • Establishing well enforced rules regulating hours of operation and noise levels, to control negative effects in places with adjacent residences.

  • Reducing speed limits on smaller streets with curbside dining, and implementing physical safety barriers on larger streets and avenues where speed-limit reductions are impractical. A group of more than three dozen elected officials, including Speaker Adams and Council Members Ayala, Brannan, Powers, and Rivera, wrote to then-Mayor de Blasio in September of 2020 asking for such measures, which have yet to be implemented.

Finally, we must view the Open Restaurants program in the larger context of how the city manages curb space. Open Restaurants, Open Streets, and other pandemic-era efforts to increase access to street space have demonstrated the public’s overwhelming interest in allowing curbside uses beyond the storage of private cars. The curb has tremendous value, and should be managed in a way that reflects that. To that end, we urge the creation of an office of public space management or the public realm to oversee such efforts.

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published this page in News 2022-02-08 15:15:47 -0500
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