Because of the dangers of dining inside during the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio allowed cafés and restaurants to temporarily build outdoor dining structures to help them stay financially afloat. Now, the mayor has moved to amend city zoning laws to make the open restaurants permanent as of 2023.
However, out of the 24 community boards who voted on the zoning text amendment through September, 15 communities from Queens to Manhattan opposed the changes. Among the plan’s fiercest critics are residents from Community Board 2, which includes the West Village, Greenwich Village, Noho, NoLita, Soho, Little Italy and parts of Chinatown. According to city data, 916 out of the 5,765 restaurants with outdoor seating in Manhattan fall within this area, even though its streets are narrower than almost anywhere else in the city.
“One restaurant has completely enclosed an entire sidewalk on my street,” said Leslie Clark, who lives in the West Village and is a leader within the West Village Residents Association. “You can either walk through his restaurant or walk in the gutter.”
Other West Village residents complain that outdoor restaurants spill off the sidewalks into the streets, creating traffic jams.
“It has become hell on earth,” said West Village resident Sarah Takesh. “We are being held hostage with all the closed streets. I can’t access my own front door. My street is closed off seven days a week so I can’t even get a cab to come to my house.”
Alan Cohen, who lives in Greenwich village, further pointed out that the dining sheds also take up parking spots, forcing residents to pay upwards of $900 a month to use one of the city’s garages.
Blocking Emergency Vehicles
Another complaint voiced by residents in the Community Board 2 area is that that dining structures block passage for emergency vehicles and garbage trucks. They point to when Uncle Ted’s Modern Chinese Cuisine restaurant in Greenwich Village was engulfed in flames back in May, and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the representative body of the New York City Fire Department, tweeted that the dining sheds hindered the ability of fire trucks to get to the fire fast.
The fire department, however, remains noncommittal on this issue. When asked if outdoor dining interferes with fire response, the department issued this indirect response: “The department works closely with other city agencies to ensure quick and safe responses to incidents of interest to public safety.”
There also have been incidents of vehicles colliding with the dining sheds. Last month, a garbage truck backed into the dining shed of a restaurant called Bar Six on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, with people inside, and dragged it 10 feet. Curbed first reported no one was injured. In March, a traffic collision propelled a car into a structure in Midtown. No one was inside at the time.
On Cornelia Street, one of the narrower blocks in the Village, nine outdoor restaurant structures line the street. Because of the dining sheds, Clark says she has noticed an increase of rats and garbage in the neighborhood.
“People on that street are now putting up rat guards on the front of their apartment buildings because the proliferation of rats is so great that they are invading the buildings,” she said.
“Practicing” for Snow Season
Like the fire department, the Department of Sanitation contends its operations have not been disrupted by outdoor dining. The agency said workers have already begun “practicing” for the snow season by taking its snow plows down streets with open restaurants.
“Our Sanitation Workers have worked hard, every day, and throughout a global pandemic, to keep the city clean,” the department responded when reached for comment. “Residents, businesses and property owners are our partners in keeping the city healthy, safe and clean, and they have a legal and moral responsibility to keep their sidewalks and gutter areas [extending 18 inches into the street] clean. This is especially true on streets with Open Restaurants.”
The culmination of all these complaints is making some residents consider moving away. Takesh, for instance, said she might sell her home, which she calls the biggest investment of her entire life.
“Why am I paying $30,000 in property taxes to live in these conditions?” said Takesh. “It has become a party zone and the sheds have changed the way the neighborhood taste, smells and feels.”
Long-time West Village resident Michele Shenfeld echoed a similar sentiment. She said she always loved how quaint the Village was with its treelined streets, small stores and brownstones. But now, she said, she feels “turned off.”
“The West Village is dirtier and messier now,” Shenfeld said. “I have had the same apartment for 45 years on Jane Street and now I am thinking about giving it up.”
Other New Yorkers, however, view outdoor restaurants as an opportunity to decrease the number of cars in the city.
“There’s so much noise from the cars and beeping,” said Soho resident, Reka Nyari. “Someone having a drink at the outdoor restaurant downstairs is a lot less disruptive than cars. It is silly to say that we shouldn’t have outdoor dining but let’s have 100,000 parking spots and encourage more driving.”
Leslie Davenport, a city resident and frequent outdoor diner, added that she is shocked so many New Yorkers are against the open restaurant program. In her eyes, this program brings a European feel to the city. “It is wonderful,” she said. “The city looks a lot more attractive. The structures are so creative.”
Despite residents’ complaints, de Blasio says the program has been a success for the city and its struggling restaurants. The current open restaurant program is set to phase out in late 2022, with the permanent program beginning the following year.
“It’s not just about the restaurant owners and I appreciate them, but also the 100,000 employees we saved because of open restaurants and the bringing back of this entire industry, which is the heart and soul of the city,” de Blasio said on NPR’s Brian Lehrer Show.
Meanwhile, many restaurants have invested heavily in outdoor dining. Quality Bistro, Locanda Verde and Lola Taverna, which were highlighted in Bloomberg News recently, spent at least $100,000 each to build and design their dining sheds.
Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said outdoor dining has been essential for restaurants trying to survive the pandemic. In response to residents’ complaints regarding garbage and traffic, Rigie said the Alliance will work closely with city agencies to develop a safe and clean permanent outdoor dining program.
Even though half of the city’s community boards voted against permanent outdoor dining, de Blasio said at his press briefing on Oct. 18 that the city will go ahead with it anyway.
“I’m someone who believes in outdoor dining fully and the permanent approach is the right way to do it,” de Blasio said. “People like outdoor dining, and we want to see the restaurant community thrive and survive in this city. I think keeping it year-round is the right way to go.”
“Why am I paying $30,000 in property taxes to live in these conditions? It has become a party zone and the sheds have changed the way the neighborhood taste, smells and feels.” West Village resident Sarah Takesh