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Opinion: Dining in the gutter — is it really here to stay?

BY LESLIE CLARK | The unsightly, unsanitary tangle of street sheds called “Outdoor Dining” may be here to stay if Mayor Adams has his way. The spectacle of New York’s fine avenues, historic streets and unique neighborhoods reduced to a clutter of gutter dining sheds is an embarrassment to our once-great city. But our mayor wants it and he is asking our City Council to rubber stamp legislation [written at his “request”] that dutifully serves the interests of lobbyists who have grabbed Adams’s attention and are hanging on to his power.

The legislation is called Intro 31C — a perpetual extension of the pandemic Open Restaurants program — and it bears the clear markings of political insiders, special-interest and industry lobbyists, who have been pushing this program down residents’ throats for three years now. And they’re crowing about it.

Open Plans co-director Sara Lind thanked all those who worked “diligently behind the scenes.” Keith Powers, the City Council Democratic majority leader, spoke of “months of tricky discussions.” Hospitality Alliance chief Andrew Rigie bragged about “two years of discussions and negotiations with the mayor’s administration and the City Council” led by Rigie’s chief legal counsel.

Graffiti and trash piled up around some Downtown dining sheds. (Courtesy Leslie Clark)

“Working diligently behind the scenes”…“tricky discussions”…“two years of negotiations with the mayor” — that’s what used to be called backroom deals. Those deals cut neighborhood residents out of the process at every turn. There were no public hearings on the legislation. No public roundtables, as promised by the Department of Transportation more than a year ago. No environmental impact study, as required by state law. Just private meetings and deals with an industry that calls itself “hospitality” and stands to make a fortune from this program — and with “new urbanists” determined to replace cars on the city’s streets, whatever the cost in rats, trash, noise and public safety.

The result of these exclusive backroom deals? An “anywhere everywhere” piece of legislation that would allow any restaurant to open a sidewalk or roadway cafe anywhere and, therefore, everywhere. And no limits on how many outdoor dining setups can be on any block. No distinction drawn between commercial corridors and small residential side streets where people live and once tried to sleep at night.

Forget about sleeping when this legislation passes. Intro 31C contains no sound mitigation at all, nothing to prevent loudspeakers and televisions in the sidewalk cafes or roadway setups. And the noise will invade neighboring homes from 10 a.m. to midnight — by decree of this legislation. That’s 14 hours out of every 24-hour day. Who cares if kids, elders and working people can’t get a good night’s sleep? Not industry lobbyists and not our mayor.

A dining shed festooned with graffiti. (Courtesy Leslie Clark)

City councilmembers like to assure constituents that there will no longer be sheds in the new program. They’re wrong. Intro 31C speaks of “readily removable tables, chairs and other removable decorative items” in the roadway that will be surrounded by “barriers.” Add a platform and a roof — neither of which are banned by this legislation — and you’ve got what most experienced New Yorkers would call a “shed.”

Intro-31C does say that roadway dining will be “seasonal,” though that is bizarrely defined as most of the year, or eight months — from April 1 to Nov. 30. So, will these new-fangled sheds be dismantled and stored every night during those eight months? Or just on Dec. 1 of every year, in order to give our filthy, stinking streets a once-a-year cleaning by the Sanitation Department’s water-and-brush trucks? Or will the sheds just be padlocked and left to fester in the gutter for four months out of every year?

And what will the cost be to the newly franchised outdoor restaurateur? Intro 31C licenses public space to private business interests for as little as $5 per square foot per year. Yes, that’s right — less than the price of a latte. And the bill mandates that 80 percent of all sidewalk and roadway space in the program be licensed at the very low end of the scale. The high end? That would be $31 per square foot per year – or the price of a single [lunch] entrée in Manhattan neighborhoods where pandemic gutter-dining has become endemic.

The Department of Transportation, the same agency that has notoriously bungled the pandemic Open Restaurants program during the last three years, will continue to mismanage its mandate and create rules it will not enforce. And, under Intro 31C, restaurants will be allowed to keep whatever setup they now have sprawled all over the sidewalk or roadway until November 2024. That’s a 15-month extension of temporary Open Restaurants and a clear incentive to the hospitality industry to keep piling up the garbage, feeding the rats and broadcasting the din of its drunken patrons into neighboring homes.

It’s not surprising that the hospitality industry would work hard to craft legislation that perpetually increases its own profits. What is deeply distressing is how progressives, “new urbanists” and “public space advocates” have pushed this public land grab — with apparent indifference to the very public whose interests they claim to represent.

Any city councilmember with a conscience should vote NO on Intro 31C.

Clark is a member, West Village Residents Association and Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy (CUEUP)


  1. BCapoNYC BCapoNYC August 24, 2023

    Amen. Add to the list of “Why not to vote for your counvilmember”: Citibikes are CERTAINLY too much, and w/ these unregulated sheds, we are left with no place for locals to park, get deliveries. YES, some people still own cars for many reasons and we are NOT a Central Business District, we are a residential area. Want to complain abour congestion? Keep throwing objects in the street to block easy passage.
    The restaurateurs claim extra space, for trash cans in the street by the sides of their sheds, and extra sidewalk tables next to sheds and stores. It is so difficult to pass with strollers, wheelchairs and shopping carts, as often the people stand around blocking the sidewalk to smoke, chat, wait for a seat.
    The homeless and those attracted to opportunity to panhandle and snatch off of chairs, use the spaces to defecate next to (yes, large human BMs) and non-neighborhood drunken revelers urinate on & between them.
    MOSTLY it is RATS, RATS, RATS out of control, with food source and places to hide under & inside.
    The pandemic is OVER, people. This was a temporary measure being taken advantage of on a huge scale, especially in the LowerEast Side/East Village, and we see & hear about many other areas.
    They are a HUGE safety and health issue, compromising neighborhood quality of life for campaign donations?

  2. Lucy Lucy August 3, 2023

    Great op-ed. Most of these sheds and street spaces sit empty 95% or more of the time, including much of the whole of winter. Meanwhile, families and those with jobs that demand cars and often late-night work hours circle the blocks looking for parking, adding to congestion and pollution and elevating the frustration of living in the city. Many are fed up and looking to get out.

  3. Sonya Sonya August 3, 2023

    Thank you, Leslie Clark! The most jaw-dropping thing about Intro 31C is the one-size-fits-all approach that assumes that the needs and priorities of the many different neighbourhoods are the same across the board. At the very least, a differentiated approach is needed for different neighbourhoods, that is informed by the residents of that particular neighbourhood. This is disaster capitalism through and through. Enough is enough.

  4. RAC RAC August 3, 2023

    NYC hired consultant companies to design plans to make New York City into a Nightlife Industry. As a nightlife destination, the city reaps big alcohol tax income from restaurants (along with tax from hotels, sales tax, transportation tax from “nightlife” visitors). This rebranding as a nightlife destination is much more of a mission for the mayor than measly residents’ concerns. I expect they will throw the residents a sop, like promising to keep things clean. We real New Yorkers have not been given a voice in this business decision.

  5. JS JS August 1, 2023

    Obviously, the City Council is ignoring their constituents’ concerns by pursuing this “outdoor dining” backroom deal. If they continue to pursue this agenda, they should all be primaried!

    • JAL JAL August 2, 2023

      The City Council is doing this without constituent knowledge – and acting like Republicans.
      And media like NYT does not even bother to report so citizens could have a chance to weigh in.

      Real Estate, Restaurants and the Bicycle Lobby run NYC.

    • JSS JSS August 2, 2023

      The Village Sun should have this link as a banner across the top of the site

  6. Via Via August 1, 2023

    Please – no more street dining!

    Besides the trash, rats and overall shantytown streetscape and many other issues, I do not wish to support the restaurant business nor allow special benefit for restaurants.

    Not to mention there are already tons of restaurants – too many in fact. There is not a need for more restaurants.

    It is incredible that de Blasio and Adams basically have allowed corporate entities Hospitality Alliance and Transportation Alternatives to run the City along with Big Real Estate. They are just cementing Bloomberg’s vision of NYC as a luxury playground for adults.

  7. Augustine Hope Augustine Hope August 1, 2023

    Month after month, the hospitality industry lobbyists and their captive politicians roll out the same mendacious excuses for their breathtakingly audacious land grab — they’re “activating” our streets and returning them to the people, they’re eliminating free parking and getting rid of polluting, dangerous cars, they’re encouraging business and saving the planet! None of it is true. If you want to give us back our streets, stop private enterprise from annexing them. If you want to get rid of cars, ban cars (including Uber). If you want to eliminate free parking, charge for parking. If you want to support businesses (plural), stop subsidizing one industry (singular). If you want to save the planet, plant trees and rethink public transportation. The so-called “outdoor dining” program (it often isn’t) that blocks our sidewalks and curbs, trashes our historic neighborhoods and pits an extractive industry against a contributive community does not solve even one of our problems.

  8. Josh Spodek Josh Spodek August 1, 2023

    These sheds do to neighborhoods what the Cross Bronx Expressway did.

    They promise to displace traffic, but add to it, as my neighborhood fills with cars to bring diners every evening, along with the honking, fumes, and unmuffled engines.

    People don’t want to live where the noise is, so the sheds undermine the areas where they’re built for people who don’t live there and don’t care, hence the garbage and litter all over every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, along with vermin, smell and oozing puddles of scum.

    The proponents say they are saving an industry, but 1) the pandemic emergency is over and 2) there is zero chance that people will stop buying food. If their prices are too high, it results from the sheds’ other big effect.

    Giving restaurants NYC real estate nearly free enables landlords to raise rents. Then 1) restaurants have to raise prices and 2) neighboring shop rents rise, too, raising their prices or causing them to close, leading to more closed storefronts, leading to fewer local businesses and fewer eyes on the street, meaning more vagrancy, drugs and crime.

    Sheds are a disaster.

    By contrast, look at what Queens has done with 34th Avenue: over a mile made traffic-free, allowing children to play safely where cars once went (there are three schools there and kids were confined to their tiny roofs). The noise is lower. Everything is safer and healthier, allowing for community programming. They teach classes outdoors, hold community and cultural events, and grow their farmers market. They grow living plants where cars went before. Here, though, we grow piles of garbage instead

    What Queens can do with a wide boulevard, we can do with our small streets: return them to local people.

  9. Kathy Arntzen Kathy Arntzen July 31, 2023

    Right on, Leslie Clark. The charm and beauty of New York City streets have been missing for three years. The city screams of greed and mismanagement.
    Residents are being betrayed by the people they elected to watch out for them…from the Mayor down. Intro 31C will continue to change the city into an unlivable place where it will be impossible to raise a family, work, sleep and enjoy being a New Yorker.

  10. lisa lisa July 31, 2023

    Sara Lind and the others wear the progressive/social-justice warrior cloak, hiding their support for corporatism as long as it is corporatism that is convenient for them — restaurant business, big real estate, Uber, etc.

    No one cares about the catastrophe faced by small stores — only restaurants count.

    NYC is the new serfdom, with the young wealthy eating out everywhere while everyone else must walk by and see the excess.

    The new lords are just like the old lords — just that the new lords look cooler and are more manipulative than the old lords.

    • Steve Steve August 3, 2023

      Perfectly said, Lisa.

  11. Stuart Waldman Stuart Waldman July 31, 2023

    Open Restaurants is an embarrassment, not just for the way it looks, but for the blatantly corrupt, lobbyist-driven deal that will guarantee that our streets remain noisy, filthy and rat-infested forever. Councilmembers Erik Bottcher and Carlina Rivera represent neighborhoods that together represent nearly 20% of the sheds citywide. They should be leaders in the fight to defend their neighborhoods from the blight of Open Restaurants. Where are they?

  12. Leif Arntzen Leif Arntzen July 31, 2023

    Once the pandemic ended & social distancing restrictions got canceled, the ongoing temporary Open Restaurants program (TORP) cheapened, cheated & canceled every notion of healthy neighborhood hygiene & quality-of-life norm in the book on every TORP-saturated residential street in the City. Instead of correcting that slide in communities citywide, this City Council has bewilderingly self-dealt themselves a lowly pair of 2’s in a backroom card game against a full-house hand with Intro C31 that will convert TORP to PORP (Permanent Open Restaurants Program), against consistent & ever-increasing constituent objection. Ms. Clark’s op-ed is right on the money. What could possibly be the reason we don’t hear PORP discussed in public by a long list of CM’s, including Julie Menin, Keith Powers, Erik Bottcher, Carlina Rivera et al, saying anything with a shred of substance? Why so glum? Why so shy & quiet for such a popular program? Why so mum on something so highly touted by the Mayor & professional lobbyists at @OpenPlans, @Streetsblog, @TransAlt, & NYC Hospitality Alliance’s Andrew Rigie as reimagining our public space, so generative of thousands of new jobs & fresh vibrancy in our neighborhoods? Why so secret on a program that has already allegedly been so wonderful, so reasonable, so fair & so great for all New Yorkers? Did their public service get cheapened, cheated, & canceled, too?

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