In a concession to the restaurant industry, a bill introduced in City Council seeks to formalize the introduction of dining sheds that became a prominent source of revenue for the struggling restaurant industry over the pandemic. While not expressly making them permanent year-round, Bill 31-B proposes to “grant licenses and revocable consents for sidewalk cafes and roadway cafes”–essentially aiming to make dining sheds at least a seasonal summer staple.
However, some community groups want them gone permanently, saying they have passed their sell-by date now that COVID has eased off and there are no dining restrictions in place.
The new permits will involve an annual fee of $1,050 paid to the city. This is the same fee outlined in the previous legislation for licensing the sheds–with the added bonus of covering four years of licensure instead of two. Naturally, the restaurant industry wholeheartedly embraces the legislation.
The Hospitality Alliance, a prominent restaurant trade group that heavily lobbied for the bill, lauded its introduction. The Alliance said that the seasonal dining provisions enshrined in the bill will be “part of the permanent transformation of our streets, something that before the pandemic was not even a dream. We strongly believe it is better to have eight months of roadway dining than no roadway dining at all, even if it’s not allowed during the winter.”
They also effusively praised an aspect of the new law where sheds will be allowed to continue operating while the licensing for them undergoes the approval process. “This is a huge win, so businesses don’t lose out on months of outdoor dining as they and the city transitions into the permanent program,” the Alliance said in a statement.
Yet some detractors note the unaccountability of this very approval process, and claim that councilmembers are lending more attention to the hospitality industry than to community critics of the sheds.
The councilmembers listed as co-sponsors on the bill include East Side council members Keith Powers and Julie Menin, as well as Marjorie Velázquez (whose district includes City Island and Pelham Bay in the Bronx, and Throggs Neck in Queens) and Justin L. Brannan from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Leif Arntzen, a member of CUEUP (Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy), is a prominent opponent of the dining sheds. He’s also not a fan of the new bill. He says its introduction has shattered the trust of many community members in their local representatives: “I think that those councilmembers are getting an earful [from constituents] right now,” he said. “It’s a top-down program that was pushed by the mayor,” Arntzen added. The newly introduced bill indeed notes it came to committee “by request of the mayor.”
CUEUP claims there is little substantial (or binding) input allowed for community stakeholders in the licensing process. “The consent process, it’s going to be passed to the Community Boards for review, and they’ll have X amount of days to make their recommendation,” Arntzen explains, “but we all know that anything they do or say is advisory.”
Arntzen says the sheds take up parking spaces on streets, block street cleaners, and cut into pedestrian walkways when they’re set up on sidewalks.
Arntzen painted a dire portrait of the health hazards that could emanate from the sheds if the bill stayed as is. In CUEUP’s telling, the semi-permanent establishment of dining sheds during the summer months will make NYC’s rats, roaches, and rubbish problem exponentially worse than it already is. This would all be layered on top of recently enacted permissive zoning amendments that Arntzen says could create “open season” for dining shed approval.
Naturally, the councilmembers publicly listed on the bill will likely tend to disagree with the rationale of advocacy organizations such as CUEUP. In an interview with Straus News, District 4 Councilmember Keith Powers--the Democratic majority leader whose district includes part of the Upper East Side and the Stuyvesant/Peter Cooper Village neighborhood--downplayed the doomsaying critics of the legislation. He says that his goals were aligned with the community, many of whom have come to enjoy outdoor dining in the warmer months.
He believes that seasonal sheds will avoid many of the problems associated with year-round structures. They won’t be “lingering any more and becoming blighted.” Taking them down over the winter, the theory goes, will avoid many of the problems associated with run-down and abandoned sheds kept up all year long. He also promises a much nicer design.
Powers is seeking to achieve balance between various interest groups, hoping to split the effects of the bill between the restauranteurs (who ideally would like a permanent, year-round shed law) and some community organizers (who seemingly want absolutely no sheds in the post-pandemic era, under any circumstances).
Councilmember Menin also struck a neutral tone, telling Straus News that: “The latest version of the permanent outdoor dining bill presents a potential framework for a permanent outdoor dining program in New York City. The City Council and the Mayor’s Administration have collaborated closely to develop this program and all parties involved including residents, businesses, and communities acknowledge the challenges that accompany outdoor dining. Any program must create a vibrant and inclusive outdoor dining experience that keeps our streets safe, clean, and accessible.”