The omnipresent restaurant curbside sheds could become a thing of the past under the city’s plans to make the pandemic-era outdoor dining initiative permanent.
The Department of Transportation’s Open Restaurants Program director told the New York City Council that the curbside eateries will be less heavily-constructed than those that restaurant owners have built outside their establishments around the Five Boroughs.
“We don’t envision sheds in the permanent program, we’re not planning for that,” said Julie Schipper during the virtual Feb. 8 oversight hearing. “What would be in the roadway is barriers and tents or umbrellas, but not these full houses that you’re seeing in the street.”
The DOT rep said that the structures were no longer necessary because people don’t have to dine outside anymore like they did early on during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Something we saw over COVID is you cannot eat indoors and so you had to eat outside in all weather, but that won’t be the case going forward,” she said. “This program is really being planned for a post-COVID scenario where you can dine outside when that feels nice and comfortable but you won’t need to be in a house on a street.”
Many restaurants have set up elaborate sheds outside their businesses, sometimes decorated in designs matching their main buildings.
But all of them will have to reapply for the program come 2023 and current structures won’t be grandfathered in, said Schipper.
DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez said they’re still working on the specifics for the new outdoor dining setups.
“When it comes to how their structure will look like, we are still in the process and we will put together a sample on how that structure can look like,” he said.
The Transportation Department took hours of questions from city lawmakers and the public Tuesday about their and the Department of City Planning’s (DCP) proposed legislation to make the temporary initiative to allow eateries to expand onto the street permanent.
DCP posted a sketch on social media of what the future program’s structure could look like.
Several council members voiced concerns about the sheds attracting rodents and some of them being badly maintained.
“My primary concern is with the enclosed or semi-enclosed shed structures that continue to create protected environments for rodents to make nest,” said Bushwick Council Member Sandy Nurse. “Specifically where the sheds are the sub floors that are made to raise the shed floors to the curb level, that creates a haven for the rats under it and as we know a route chews through everything that isn’t steel.”
The scheme was a lifeline for struggling restaurants and saved some 100,000 businesses and it has been widely popular in all five boroughs, according to DOT’s own survey, but some New Yorkers have recently protested against lining the streets with al fresco dining instead of free parking.
More than 12,000 businesses applied for the program, including 2,500 which would not have been able to do so under the city’s pre-pandemic zoning rules.
DOT has so far issued warnings to 4,292 restaurants, sent out 22 fines, and removed 40 structures, according to the agency.
The permanent program will do away with geographic restrictions for outdoor seating that severely limited where outdoor seating could go and how it could look like, and move responsibility and enforcement of the rules from the Department of Consumer Affairs and Workforce Protection to DOT.
A manager at Loulou, a French bistro in Chelsea, said the business’s owners have invested thousands of dollars in their sheds lining the corner of Eighth Avenue and W. 19th Street, and draped with plantings and flowers.
“The outdoor dining also makes customers feel more comfortable, if they are worried about eating inside or are immune deficient. I think for health reasons it helps for comfortability,” said Aradelli Olguin. “It’s really helped us out a lot.”
Don Giovanni, an Italian restaurant over on 10th Avenue spent $20,000 on an enclosed sidewalk space with partitions and windows for airflow, according to the owner.
“I think it would be incredibly damaging if outdoor dining areas were to be removed,” said Kimi Cohen. “There are old customers that we have that still sit outside, and they’ve been happy to sit outside. I think that would just wipe out all of them until the spring.”
Additional reporting by Dean Moses