OPEN RESTAURANTS, May 19, 2023, 11:04 A.M.
The Permanent-Outdoor-Dining-Shed Bill Is Finally Here
By Christopher Bonanos, New York’s city editor who joined the magazine in 1993
Photo: Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Like that margarita you ordered as soon as you sat down, the city’s plan for dining sheds has taken just a little longer to arrive than everyone involved would prefer. But the outlines are finally here: Last night, we got our first look at the bill that will soon move through the City Council to regulate and make permanent outdoor, street-side dining. Although it hasn’t been passed yet, something like this is likely to become law within weeks. A first reading of the bill reveals no giant surprises, a few bits of good news, a few compromises that nobody is likely to love — and some big questions that will be left unresolved for now. Here are the highlights.
It’s all going to be run by the Department of Transportation. That’s wise, because it allows the sidewalk and street rules (traffic, safety, wheelchair access) to be enforced or relaxed as needed by one administrative body rather than several.
The physical requirements are still up in the air. The department will presumably issue them soon. When it does, everyone will probably complain about them.
The bill refers to a street-dining shed as a “roadway café.” It’s a weirdly charming all-American name, like something in a movie about Route 66.
Sidewalk and street-dining arrangements will be licensed separately. The application fee will be $1,050 per four-year period for a sidewalk café (tables, umbrellas, open air, easily removable) or a roadway café (off the curb, in a shelter). If you want both, you pay twice. There’s also a “revocable-consent” fee that varies by location, from $14 to $25 per square foot of space in lower Manhattan to $5 per foot in most of the rest of the city. It comes out to a couple thousand dollars per restaurant in Queens or the Bronx, and significantly more for, say, Balthazar.
”Permanent” means seasonal. No roadway cafés can operate from November 30 to March 31. Yes, restaurateurs will find this frustrating because they still make some money from those extra tables in cold weather, and from an urbanism standpoint, year-round street dining is perhaps a lofty goal. But demanding the right to shiver over a curbside plate of fettuccine in January is probably not the hill you want to die on.
Brunch will start late. Hours are limited but not dramatically: Restaurateurs can open their outdoor sheds from 10 a.m. to midnight; the bill specifically and redundantly adds a Sunday-morning ban before 10.
If you’re in a historic district, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has to approve your sidewalk-dining shed. And it has only ten days to do so. That’s a big deal: Landmarks is a small and (classically, at least) rather deliberate agency, and there are a lot of restaurants in historic districts, including big swaths of the West Village and Soho, large parts of the Upper East and Upper West Sides, brownstone Brooklyn, and beyond. Admittedly, many of those districts have been drawn to designate mostly residential streets and let the commercial strips nearby carry out their business; on the Upper East Side, for example, there’s comparatively little Landmarks turf east of Lexington Avenue. But it’s still going to mean a blitz of paperwork at Landmarks, and one suspects that a bottleneck will form there.
Here come the cranks. There is a community-board review and a public hearing for every license. That’s pretty standard procedure for every such change to the streetscape, but given the talking points (parking places, vermin), hoo-boy are people going to be shouting.
You can’t paint ads on these structures. Name and logo of the restaurant and its menu and services, nothing more. Unclear whether BACONEGGANDCHEESESALTPEPPERKETCHUP counts as “menu.”
If it’s noncompliant, it has to be removed pretty fast. Within 30 days after the DOT gives it a thumbs-down.
If it has already been approved, it stays for a while. Outdoor-dining structures that are already up and compliant with the rules can stay through the end of November 2024, and then they, too, have to be dismantled. The bill generally seems to have been designed with a deep grace period before it takes effect, to help businesses adjust. Also, many of the new rules take effect 160 days after the bill is passed, and given that this bill probably won’t move through the City Council for a few weeks, it will likely affect nothing beyond some planning this summer.