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The future of open dining: Make it permanent & year round

Whether it’s a cold winter night or a muggy Saturday in July, millions of New Yorkers have enjoyed new opportunities to eat outside. Most of them — having too much fun to follow the headlines and Twitter debates — would be shocked to discover that the beloved program is at risk. But it is. City Council is, rumor has it, toying with a future that removes New Yorkers’ option to dine outside in winter months. But the year-round option is crucial; if we don’t pass a bill that protects that, outdoor dining as we know it today is effectively dead.

A year-round program will not necessarily preserve streeteries as they exist today. A permanent bill — even one that codifies the option for winter dining — will include design guidelines and regulations that mitigate current problems. It may mandate movable tables and chairs, for example, rather than walls and roofs. It would also require rat mitigation, trash and snow removal, accessibility, and standard operating hours to address noise concerns. With these new guidelines, some restaurants may, indeed, become seasonal. But the restaurants relying on the business and revenue generated by curbside dining can continue to thrive.

Dilapidated structures should be taken down — not even the most ardent proponent of outdoor dining disagrees. But to throw out the good with the bad is shortsighted. 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 with legislation tomorrow? So our delay makes the situation worse.

The issue with seasonality comes down to storage. A partial-year program will require restaurants remove and store tables, chairs, and other materials for many months. Businesses have already communicated that they will be unable to do that — effectively killing the program entirely. It happened in Paris — between 2021 and 2022, the newly enacted seasonal system cut the number of curb-lane restaurant terraces by two-thirds, from 12,000 to 4,000. There’s every reason to assume the same will happen here.

Not only will the number of participating restaurants decline, but diversity will. The businesses with the resources to remove and store equipment will be the wealthy restaurants and chains — relegating this lucrative program to already affluent New Yorkers and neighborhoods. Do we want to increase inequities? 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 endangers the revenue these restaurants now rely on and cuts residents off from new dining options already enjoyed in other neighborhoods.

If you’re concerned about giving away valuable space for private use, consider that outdoor dining only uses about 1% of the curb space — space almost entirely used for the free storage of vehicles. Talk about a private giveaway! The city will gain much more in tax revenue from Open Restaurants than it currently does from parking. And restaurants will pay a fee for participating. The fee should be low enough for small restaurants, but high enough to ensure that restaurants won’t leave unused structures on the street.

Partial view of the outdoor seating area of the Chelsea Market, one of the winners of the Alfresco NYC Awards that recognize the city's best outdoor dining spaces.

Restaurants are also incredible job creators, but a seasonal program will mean lost jobs. Is now — in the face of an oncoming fiscal crisis — really the time to jeopardize a program that provides so many jobs and so much tax revenue? All because a few empty sheds have created unpleasant conditions that could be fixed with a permanent program?

And yet, it seems our elected officials are willing to let outdoor dining die, as it almost certainly would with a seasonal program. On March 8, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams gave her State of the City address. She never once mentioned outdoor dining. Word on the street — and sometimes from her own lips — is that she just doesn’t like the program. Perhaps these electeds don’t dine outside themselves. But it’s their job to speak — and lead — for the millions of New Yorkers who do.

With the right leadership, Open Restaurants’ permanent, year-round guidelines could unite us. Opponents see problem areas fixed; proponents get thriving, vibrant streetscapes. We all get curbs appropriately priced for their value, clean streets, boosted local businesses — and an al fresco snack anytime of year.

Lind is chief strategy officer at Open Plans where she develops and implements a legislative and policy agenda including an Office of Public Space Management, block level democracy and streamlining the public space permitting process to make the streets and city more livable.

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