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Adrienne Adams

Council Speaker Makes Her Choice: Car Storage over Diners and Restauranteurs

1:36 PM EDT on September 28, 2022

If Speaker Adams stands by her Wednesday comments, outdoor dining like this patio on Smith Street could end up on the sidewalk … or be scrubbed altogether. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Check please!

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams appeared to throw the entire open restaurant program under the bus on Wednesday morning, suggesting that the revolutionary de Blasio-era repurposing of roadway space from storage of privately owned cars to outdoor dining was a mistake, despite how few parking spaces it actually took and how many jobs the city estimated it saved.

"Outdoor dining, in my perspective, should be sidewalk, ”the Speaker said at a Citizens Union breakfast. "The street extensions were designed to be temporary."

The comments come as the Council is slowly creating legislation that would allow restaurants to use the so-called parking lane for outdoor dining, albeit at a still-to-be-determined a fee. The City Planning Commission approved the permanent outdoor dining program earlier this year, but it remains in the Council's hands. City Hall and the Council have said they are pausing while a lawsuit against making the Covid-era program permanent makes its way through the legal system.

It's not clear if Speaker Adams was commenting simply for herself or believes she has the support of her rank-and-file members. After Adams said that restaurants should only be allowed to use sidewalk space, Council Member Erik Bottcher pushed back.

“The use of road space for outdoor dining has been an overall positive development," Bottcher told Streetsblog. "Banning all restaurants from using road space for dining would be a mistake.”

Regardless of how the lawsuit plays out, Speaker Adams's apparent belief that restaurant dining areas should be limited to the sidewalk is almost entirely impossible in New York City, where 80.6 percent of the sidewalks are less than 12 feet wide — the requirement for outdoor dining. More than 92 percent of the Big Apple's sidewalk space is less than 15 feet wide, which would be a squeeze for pedestrians.

The website Sidewalk Widths rated anything less than 15 feet as between "impossible" and "somewhat difficult" to site a restaurant. Some neighborhoods simply don't have enough pedestrian space to even consider outdoor dining on the sidewalk, the website shows. Only 4.9 percent of the sidewalk space on the Upper West Side, for example, is wider than 15 feet.

Open dining — which represented one of the most revolutionary shifts in the use of public roadway space since car owners seized the curbside spaces for storage more than 70 years ago — is hugely popular, especially with Manhattanites, according to surveys by DOT and Transportation Alternatives. In addition, despite contention from drivers that it is now quite difficult to park, very few "parking spaces" were repurposed for outdoor dining.

Indeed, the DOT testified in the lawsuit that "75 to 100 percent of the parking spaces [in restaurant-] eligible corridors are metered spaces with strict time-limits and graduated fee rates to encourage parking turnover. ... It is unlikely that residents depend on those parking spaces for their long-term parking needs."

Other opponents claim that outdoor dining has brought rats to areas that previously didn't have them, but experts in rat behavior and extermination debunked that earlier this year.

But if Speaker Adams opposes outdoor dining plazas reclaiming public space from cars, she has some support from the mayor, who took a sledgehammer to help tear down one of the few restaurant sheds that had fallen into disuse. The next day, the dining area was once again a parking space, Streetsblog reported — with even one driver saying she preferred outdoor dining to a parking space. That said, the Mayor Adams has often dined al fresco, in the roadway, and the sledgehammer photo op was specifically to highlight the administration's opposition to defunct or unused outdoor sheds.

Reaction to the Speaker's comments was swift.

"Streeteries were only initially intended to be temporary and that’s why the city is now going through the legislative process to develop a more standardized and sustainable permanent outdoor dining program, which includes upgraded roadway seating, because thousands of restaurants rely on it, countless New Yorkers and visitors love dining alfresco, not to mention support from many City Council members we see dining outdoors supporting their local restaurants," said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents thousands of restaurants.

A spokesman for TA, which also supports outdoor dining, focused on how little inconvenience it was for how much gain it provided.

"At its peak, the Open Restaurants program transformed 0.29 percent of New York City's parking spaces and saved 100,000 jobs," said Cory Epstein. "We have proof that New York City's recovery can be powered by putting streets to better use than just moving and storing private vehicles. We urge the City Council to follow the data, keep New Yorkers working, and strengthen the program for the future."

Alfresco New York City, which is a spinoff of the Regional Plan Association, Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Design Trust for Public Space, also criticized Adams's comment.

"Open restaurants demonstrated that New York can use street space usually reserved for private vehicles ... to better serve businesses and communities," the group said in a tweet. "The City Council ... must move forward — not backward — and continue to use public street space for the greatest public benefit."

And Jackson Chabot of the policy shop at Open Plans (a sister organization to Streetsblog) called Speaker Adams's comment "incorrect and regressive."

"Outdoor dining is popular, as evidenced by people using it," he said. "It has also been a lifesaver for restaurants during the pandemic. We need to continue to reimagine the curb ... not go back to the pre-pandemic status quo."

After initial publication of this story, City Hall spokesman Charles Lutvak said the mayor stands by his prior support of outdoor dining — in the roadway.

“Mayor Adams supports a full, equitable, permanent Open Restaurants program that all New Yorkers can be proud of," Lutvak said. "That means resuscitating local restaurants all across the city post-pandemic with seating on the sidewalk and in the roadway, protecting the 100,000 jobs this program saved during the pandemic, and reimagining street space to better serve all New Yorkers, while putting critical health and sanitation guardrails in place under the Department of Transportation.”

Speaker Adams's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. After initial publication of this story, the speaker’s office responded … to amNY, which ran a comment:

“The Speaker indicated that she was giving her own perspective at this morning’s breakfast,” said Mandela Jones in a statement. “As the leader of a legislative body that represents all of New York City, incorporating the perspectives of her members and New Yorkers in crafting policy is at the heart of the job.”

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