Once a Pandemic-Era Innovation, New York Considers Changes for Dining Sheds

How to handle a new landscape of outdoor dining has been a growing question.

A restaurant's pandemic-era outdoor dining, left, extends onto a sidewalk in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood, New York. Aug. 7, 2023.
A restaurant's pandemic-era outdoor dining, left, extends onto a sidewalk in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood, New York. Aug. 7, 2023.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

NEW YORK (AP) β€” Outdoor dining was a part of the pandemic that many people actually liked β€” made possible by streetside dining sheds that popped up around New York City and allowed many restaurants to stay in business when they couldn't have diners inside.

Some sheds were simple β€” wooden structures with basic cutouts for light, a few tables, the occasional plastic sheeting to keep out rain and snow. Other restaurants got more into it β€” choosing decor to match the restaurant's interiors and adding heaters, plants and plush seating.

As New York City has moved out from under its pandemic-era regulations, how to handle the new landscape of outdoor dining structures has been a growing question. While many still like the sheds and restaurants want to keep them, others say there is no longer a need for them. Some have raised concerns like increased noise and congestion, loss of street space, and argued that some are dilapidated, abandoned structures that are eyesores.

City officials have now taken steps toward making outdoor dining a permanent part of the New York City streetscape, but with conditions. Earlier this month the New York City Council passed legislation that would create a system allowing businesses to set up dining sheds on city streets for April through November and to remove them in the winter months.

Sidewalk dining would still be allowed year-round, as it was pre-pandemic. Now, it's allowed in more parts of the city.

Just like the mix of feelings about the sheds themselves, there has been a wide range of reactions to the new system, though details are still being hammered out. The processes β€” for permitting, fees and licensing β€” as well as design requirements, still need to be decided. Full compliance is slated to go into effect in November 2024.

Many restaurants would have preferred to see street dining allowed permanently, but are glad to see it will still be possible for most of the year, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a trade group for the city's restaurants and nightlife venues.

"Of all the doom and gloom in the pandemic, one of the bright spots was outdoor dining," he said. "By utilizing a little area in the roadway, you're able to create a whole new experience for people that are going to dine out, people that are walking around."

"I think it creates, when done properly, a much more livable, much more vibrant streetscape than simply keeping or using it just for parking," Rigie said.

Leif Arntzen, a member of the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, could not disagree more. He and his group are adamantly opposed to the expansion of sidewalk dining into the roadbeds. They said the city should be doing an impact study on neighborhoods before taking any moves toward making it permanent.

"For residents, it's less curb space, less sidewalk space, less roadbed space, less space to get up and down the block, less quiet, less emergency access, it's just less," he said. "It's more for one industry, less for everybody else."

Mathias Van Leyden, owner of LouLou bistro in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, is sympathetic to those who are put off by makeshift structures, some of which have been abandoned around the city, and painted over with graffiti or otherwise vandalized.

But not his, Van Leyden said, pointing out that he invested a significant amount into a outdoor shed that has windows, is decorated and comes portable.

"Some people are not doing it right, they're the ones who are making us look bad," he said.

Even with the requirement to remove the sheds for the winter months, he's happy to see the city agreeing to keep streetside dining.

"We're happy that New York's moving in the direction," he said. It's "a bit more European, where we have people sitting outside, makes the street a little more lively."

Valarie Marrs isn't sold. She was sitting in a restaurant's street shed in the East Village recently and called the pop-up structures "terrible."

"They litter up the street so badly, they take away from the aesthetics of the streets," she said. "They're trash magnets, they're just awful."

Sitting next to her, Daniel Laitman disagreed. "I like them," he said. "If it's too hot inside from the ovens, it's a cool space β€” and if it's not that hot, then it's like a breeze coming in from everywhere."

Maulin Mehta, New York director for the Regional Plan Association, an organization that advocates around infrastructure and other issues and which supports alternative uses of city streets, considered the City Council legislation for a permanent program to be a step forward.

"I think there's a way to get this right. And now that we actually have this framework in place, the legislation, we can start thinking about the future program," Mehta said.

He said, "It gives us a chance to sort of move beyond the emergency crisis and really think about the future for our streets and sidewalks."

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