Council: Mayor Must ‘Think Outside The Box’ When It Comes To Open Streets for Restaurants

Famed restaurant architect David Rockwell created this idea for outdoor space — showing the Park Slope restaurant Negril — for the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Photo: Rockwell Group
Famed restaurant architect David Rockwell created this idea for outdoor space — showing the Park Slope restaurant Negril — for the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Photo: Rockwell Group

Mayor de Blasio is too myopic when it comes to rethinking street space to help struggling New Yorkers during the COVID-19 crisis, lawmakers charged on Thursday as they discussed legislation that would require the city to create space for outdoor dining amid the pandemic.

“When it comes to open space, and streets in general, I personally don’t have confidence the mayor has been an outside-the-box thinker in rethinking street space,” said Brooklyn Council Member Antonio Reynoso during the virtual hearing.

The bill, introduced on Thursday, would require the city to “identify open spaces, such as sidewalks, streets, plazas, where outdoor dining would (sic) appropriate,” as well as “additional areas where food vendors could temporarily operate” — and it comes after de Blasio has repeatedly declined to put any urgency into an economic revitalization plan that’s already taken off in San Francisco, Cincinnati and, Chicago.

“We’re really interested in the notion of outdoors being part of the solution for restaurants and bars. I’m very hopeful [but] this is not a Phase I thing. I’ll say it as clear as a bell — it’s not yet time for restaurants and bars,” de Blasio said Thursday morning before the Council hearing. He added that he had not yet seen the legislation.

But now is the time to think about it, and to plan ahead for when the city is ready, said Reynoso.

“I do think that we need to encourage the mayor to think outside the box with street space,” he said.

This legislation is the second time in as many months that Reynoso and his colleagues took matters into their own hands to push the slow-acting mayor — the first was when the Council introduced a bill requiring the city to create 75 miles of open streets, which ultimately got Hizzoner to create his own, expanded open streets plan.

The bill would allow cafes and restaurants to bypass the lengthy and expensive process of going through community boards to acquire a license to operate on the sidewalk or street, though the Department of Consumer Affairs would still oversee such operations. The Council bill requires the Department of Transportation to identify far more space throughout the city where restaurants could expand to serve people outside, according to Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is also a sponsor.

“We know that a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work. We also know how it can be expensive and time-consuming to get a sidewalk cafe license — this will make it easier for everyone to serve customers outside, not just those who can afford architects and lawyers to cut through red tape and bureaucracy,” said Johnson.

It has been several weeks since DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told the City Council that there already is an “inter-agency group looking at how you would manage [restaurant seating] and permitting issues.”

The need for open streets to re-open restaurants has support from industry leaders like Andrew Rigie of the New York Hospitality Alliance, and from local restaurant owners, who desperately want the space to be able to restart their businesses again, and start serving their loyal customers.

“This legislation is the life-line we need,” said Melba Wilson, owner of Melba’s Restaurant in Harlem. “When restaurants can’t reopen, communities can’t reopen. Serving outside will help restaurants that have been economically crushed by COVID-19 recover faster and will ensure we’re protecting our staff and customers’ health and safety.” 

But like the disproportionate enforcement of black and brown New Yorkers in other aspects of open space, police must not be the sole enforcers of such a program.

“I don’t think the first reaction needs to be using police officers for outdoor spaces, I think if you set proper guidelines and work with restaurants mostly all will abide by it,” said Johnson. “Given some interactions we’ve seen in communities of color across NYC, some incidents are indefensible, we should not look at that as a first route. I think there are other ways and give clear guidelines and guidance get pretty broad compliance.”

rockwell gully
Another of David Rockwell’s designs. This one is for the Gully in Astoria. Photo: Rockwell Group

The bill is co-sponsored by 10 other pols, including Manhattan Council Members Carlina Rivera and Keith Powers; Bronx Council Members Rafael Salamanca and Diana Ayala, Jr.; Brooklyn Council Members Brad Lander and Laurie Cumbo; and Queens Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Donovan Richards. Famed restaurant architect David Rockwell has created several designs to help people visualize how simple and quick the program could be adopted.

And on Friday, members of the Council and restaurant industry will host another discussion on closing streets to make room for outdoor seating, specifically in Greenwich Village and Chelsea. Council Speaker Jonson will be joined by Manhattan Council Members Carlina Rivera and Keith Powers, along with the NYC Hospitality Alliance and Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce.

Reopening NYC Restaurants Outdoors: Webcast with Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce
Friday, May 29 at noonJoin here: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82271948222

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