Permanent Outdoor Dining? Government By Fiat—Without Caution

By Arthur Schwartz

Back in mid-June, with NYC still in lockdown, and with crowds of demonstrators marching down 14th Street and smashing windows, Bill de Blasio stood on the corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street and declared the 14th Street Pilot Project, which was supposed to last 18 months, a “great success,” and he declared the Busway “permanent.” And declared it permanent. Our neighborhood was still in COVID shock, most people were not going to work, and 14th Street had been deserted since mid-March. No public hearings had been held, no Community Board sessions had been consulted, no genuine studies had been conducted, but the Mayor, standing in front of boarded up windows, issued a fiat—it’s “permanent.”

Fast forward four months. The City is struggling to revive. Stores and restaurants are suffering. Restaurants which had not closed are allowed to open up sidewalk cafes, since indoor dining is prohibited. At first tables were allowed on sidewalks. Then the City Department of Transportation issued temporary rules allowing parking lanes, along the curb, to be turned into spaces for outdoor dining. Some of our neighborhood restaurants tried to revive. (Too late for Sammy’s on 6th Avenue and Saigon Grill on University Place.) We were all happy to see them back, and to have a chance to get out and sit with a friend or a spouse and eat a restaurant meal—a little reminder of our pre-pandemic lives. Even in early October, when the City allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity, most of us chose to sit outside.

The rules, however, were unclear. Tables were on sidewalks, along the buildings and at the curb, as well as in the street. Some tables were six feet apart with partitions. Some places, like the White Horse, have people sitting closer together with no mask wearing. As the weather has gotten cooler, some restaurants have built structures, some with poles and plastic sheeting, some, now, made out of wood, looking a lot more permanent. Some restaurants started playing music outside. I went to one that had live music on the sidewalk. There were no “permits” per se, no controls on hours and noise levels. And now, spaces with plastic enclosures have started using propane heaters as the City lifted a ban on their use in NYC.

So, what do “feel good” de Blasio and his sidekick, Polly Trottenberg, do? They declare that outdoor dining of the sort we see around the City will be “permanent.” No rules yet, no regulations, no Community Board input, no plan to return to normalcy post pandemic. (Yes, unless we re-elect Trump, there will be a post-pandemic United States.) “Permanent.” De Blasio ran his “permanent” idea past Community Boards in October, and the result was outrage. Folks who live in buildings adjacent or across the street from outdoor eating establishments screamed. They are glad to tolerate the noise and the crowds during the pandemic in order to keep local eateries alive. But “permanent?” We live in a community with more restaurants per square foot than any in New York. Pre-pandemic sidewalk café and cabaret permits, and liquor licenses were subjects of great debate at Community Board meetings, and the Boards negotiated lots of restricts addressed to numbers of tables, hours of operation and noise levels. But Polly Trottenberg (who I like to compare to Robert Moses in her zeal to ignore local community input) and de Blasio want to ignore all that. And then, despite the outcry, our City Council member, Corey Johnson, as Speaker, asked the City Council to vote to approve the move. And they did. No public process at all!

Is this the last we will hear about this? I don’t think so. Block Associations are up in arms and are planning a counter-movement. Watch the pages of WestView.

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