After a year plus of waiting for clarification, New York City’s outdoor dining program, a popular pandemic program designed to help the restaurant industry survive, is about to become a permanent part of the city’s landscape.
A City Council bill, released last month, calls for creating a licensing structure that would allow outdoor dining structures to exist in roadways, but only from April through November. Sidewalk cafes would be allowed year-round.
The bill, which is supported by Mayor Eric Adams and still requires the approval of the full Council, aims to strike a balance between retaining a mostly popular program while taking steps to control its outgrowth.
“The temporary Open Restaurants program saved 100,000 jobs and countless local restaurants at the height of the pandemic, while helping the city reimagine its public spaces,” Mayor Adams explained. “It also left hundreds of abandoned sheds on our streets that have become havens for rats and eyesores for New Yorkers. For months, I have been saying loud and clear that outdoor dining is here to stay and we need to get it right. Our administration has been working tirelessly with Speaker Adams, Council member Velázquez, and all of our partners in the City Council to craft this program, and today, we are one big step closer to delivering it. With this bill, we will create a permanent, year-round outdoor dining program that will support our small businesses, create jobs for New Yorkers, and keep our streets and communities vibrant. We will continue to move this program forward urgently to give restaurant owners and communities the clarity and support they deserve.”
The bill would set forth basic design guidelines that are still to be determined. Some elements of the plan drew immediate criticism, including a provision requiring restaurants in a historic district or at a landmark site to receive approval by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for an outdoor dining site — a policy that could affect restaurant-heavy neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The legislation ends months of waiting for restaurant owners and diners. The industry has been clamoring for guidance about what outdoor dining would look like in the future since Adams took office last year.
The new rules are likely to reduce the current footprint of outdoor dining, which soared to include more than 12,000 restaurants since early in the pandemic. But it is expected to allow for far more outdoor dining options than were in place before 2020. Restaurants will be required to have a license from the city to offer outdoor dining and to pay fees based on their location and square footage, with higher fees in Manhattan south of 125th Street.
The proposed plan was warmly received by City Council members. “It was important for the outdoor dining program to be affordable, equitable and successful and available in every borough,” noted speaker, Adrienne Adams. “The models that we will have for the outdoor dining space will be removable to allow for emergency vehicles to come through, to allow for sanitation to help clean out,” Councilwoman Marjorie Velasquez added.
Sara Lind, an executive director at Open Plans, a livable streets group, said that she was “relieved and pleased” that the program would become permanent, saying that “New York City’s outdoor dining culture has quickly become a fixture of modern city life.” But she lamented that outdoor dining in roadways would not be available during the winter.
The Transportation Department will oversee the permanent outdoor dining program. Restaurants will be allowed to offer outdoor dining from 10 a.m. until midnight, according to the bill. Sidewalk cafes are regulated separately from roadway cafes. City officials are hoping to expand sidewalk cafes, which were mostly located in Manhattan before the pandemic, and to lower the fees restaurants that operate them have to pay.
The next step for the implementation of the new rules will come later this month. The City Council is expected to vote on the bill.