Mayor Eric Adams took a sledgehammer to an abandoned dining shed last week, hoping to remove one of the obstacles to permanent outdoor dining. But the effort to create a permanent program remains paralyzed.
Eating al fresco, on both sides of the curb, has undoubtedly been one of the triumphs of the response to the pandemic, where triumphs were widely separated.
Jobs were saved, New Yorkers escaped their apartments safely (more or less) and what had been an elite offering of cafe Manhattan became a citywide style of socializing under the stars, or the street lamps anyway.
But as COVID-19 fades into just another of many anxieties in the Great City, the drawbacks of outdoor dining, or at least its sudden adoption, raised their heads. Dining structures made great nests for rats, block parking and, as the New York Post highlighted, became shelters for folks who used them to do all the things folks do in their homes.
After months of neighborhood complaints about abandoned and decrepit sheds, the New York Post coverage was the last straw for the mayor.
“The blight and disorder that we are witnessing at some of our sites is unacceptable,” the mayor declared, just before donning a hard hat, safety vest and that sledgehammer, which he wielded to take down an abandoned dining shed at 32d Street and Fifth Avenue. He said he could smell the urine from the shed.
“We want these sheds to be restaurants, not rest rooms,” The mayor declared. “That’s the goal.”
New Permitting System
There have been complaints for months about problems associated with some of the outdoor dining structures that proliferated during the pandemic. In a proposal for a permanent program, the city said that restaurants should be allowed to use both sidewalks and streets, under a new permitting system, but not build permanent structures.
That plan, however, is stalled in the City Council by a lawsuit filed at the end of July saying the outdoor dining program has spun out of control and the city should just shut it down. “Their lawsuit against the city is actually slowing the process of making the program permanent,” the mayor complained.
City agencies had been reluctant to start ripping down problematic structures, officials said, for fear this would only enable more abandonment.
But the mayor decided he had to at least be seen as doing something.
“Anytime you have a political figure in a hard hat it’s a P.R. move,” said one city official. “It was something they were trying to keep under wraps so as not to incentivize private business to abandon their property.”
But Adams, calling himself “a night life mayor,” stressed that bad apples and opponents should not be allowed to undo outdoor dining.
“What I want to say loud and clear, as much as I can have a hand in it, outdoor dining is here to stay,” Adams proclaimed.
“I see through the night how we are a thriving city,” he continued, channeling his inner Ed Koch as he declared: “In fact, if we close down at 5 p.m. we should be Portland. We’re not Portland. We’re New York. We keep it going: the city that never sleeps. in fact, we don’t even take a nap.”