Planning Commission Votes to Make Outdoor Dining Permanent

On Nov. 15, the City Planning Commission voted to approve the Permanent Open Restaurants Program zoning text amendment in a special public hearing. The vote was 10-0 with one recusal.

The proposed Permanent Open Restaurants program will transfer the control of sidewalk cafes to the Department of Transportation from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and aims to create a more streamlined approval process for sidewalk cafes.

The backdrop: Since the temporary Open Restaurants program established last year suspended the rules and procedures required to apply for a sidewalk cafe to enable restaurants to expand to outdoor dining to provide safer dining options during the pandemic, nearly 12,000 restaurants citywide have taken advantage of the opportunity to create outdoor dining spaces without the current rigorous approval process through the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.

Since the temporary program was enabled through emergency executive orders, changes to the law would be required to make the program permanent. The first step in the process of making the program permanent requires a change to the zoning text to eliminate restrictions on where sidewalk cafes can operate.

One level deeper: The program has received some backlash. To opponents of the program, restaurant sheds have created nuisances such as increased trash, noise, and rat sightings. And for some owners of buildings located near outdoor dining structures, increased presence of pests and garbage can affect building operations.

In October, a group of 23 residents filed a lawsuit and called for stricter limits on outdoor dining. And a City Council survey of 418 downtown Manhattan restaurants released in August found that 93 percent of eateries were not complying with at least one Department of Transportation guideline, including blocked fire hydrants, barriers that extended too far into the street, and setups on streets that were too narrow.

What's next: The zoning text amendment will now go to the City Council for review. If the City Council approves the zoning text amendment, the next steps will be changes to local law and agency rules to establish the rules of the program and transfer control over sidewalk cafes to the Department of Transportation.