City Planning Commission Votes to Approve Permanent Open Restaurants Program Text Amendment

Image Credit: NYC DOT.

The zoning text amendment now moves on to City Council for approval. On November 15, 2021, the City Planning Commission voted to approve the Permanent Open Restaurants Program zoning text amendment in a special public hearing. 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 (formerly Consumer Affairs) and aims to create a more streamlined approval process for sidewalk cafes. 

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. Almost 12,000 restaurants citywide have since taken advantage of the opportunity to create outdoor dining spaces without the current rigorous approval process through the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. As 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 establishing a permanent open restaurants program requires a change to the zoning text to eliminate restrictions on where sidewalk cafes can operate. 

City Planning allowed community boards the opportunity to vote on the zoning text amendment through September, and held a public hearing for the application on October 6th. For CityLand’s prior coverage of this public hearing, click here. Throughout this public engagement process, some community boards, members of the hospitality industry and members of the public praised the open restaurants program for saving thousands of jobs and businesses citywide, while many others shared concerns about quality of life issues created by the new sidewalk and roadway cafes and concerns about voting for a zoning text amendment before the details of the Permanent Open Restaurants program were completely established. 

Prior to today’s vote, City Planning modified the zoning text amendment to ensure that it would not go into effect until the Permanent Open Restaurants Program was complete and ready to launch. This modification means the removal of geographical restrictions on where sidewalk cafes can be located will not go into effect until the details about the operations and rules for the Permanent Open Restaurants program have been decided through a public engagement process and the creation of new agency rules and legislation.

All of the City Planning Commissioners, with the exception of Commissioner Alfred C. Cerullo who was recused, voted to approve the text amendment. 

As she voted yes, City Planning Commission Chair Anita Laremont stated, “The necessity of moving dining outdoors during an emergency gave New York City the rare opportunity to pilot a significant land use change on a citywide scale, and in doing this to recognize the incredible vibrancy outdoor dining can bring, not just to Manhattan, but to all five boroughs if we enable it. By voting yes on this text amendment to remove zoning that prohibits sidewalk cafes in many areas of our city, we take the first step in embracing a permanent open restaurants program that will support our small businesses and enliven our public realm for years to come. Now I want to note that in response to public input we’ve updated the proposed text amendment that we are voting on today so that it does not take effect until DOT’s coming permanent open restaurants program is finalized and ready to go. That program will be guided by coming legislation and a rigorous public engagement process that will establish clear design guidelines and rules. We at City Planning look forward to continuing to work with our DOT colleagues and the public to develop a program that balances the uses of our streets and sidewalks for all users and makes New York City streets the best in the world.”

While he voted yes, Vice Chairman Kenneth J. Knuckles acknowledged the concerns of community boards and members of the public, but stated that the expectations that the Department of Transportation will continue to rigorously enforce locational criteria and address the quality of life issues allowed him to vote to approve the amendment. He also expects that the “advisory role of community boards will be considered and respected since that is the tribunal that neighborhoods would look to with concerns about the operation of restaurants.”

Commissioner Larisa Ortiz stated, “Legitimate concerns were raised about cleanliness, noise, quality of life, and frankly some communities carry a burden in some ways of being dining destinations for the region for visitors and tourists and their concerns need to be balanced with those of the business community.” 

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. 

Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance stated, “We applaud the City Planning Commission for voting yes on the zoning text amendment that will create a clean slate for establishing and regulating a permanent Open Restaurants Program. Since its inception, Open Restaurants has saved more than 100,000 industry jobs and countless small businesses from financial collapse, and this yes vote is a critically important first step towards developing a sustainable future for this very popular program. We look forward to working with the City to ensure that managed outdoor dining continues to support small businesses, crucial industry jobs, and vibrant city streetscapes for years to come.” 

CityLand will continue to provide updates regarding the permanent open restaurants program.

By: Veronica Rose (Veronica is the CityLaw fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2018.)


One thought on “City Planning Commission Votes to Approve Permanent Open Restaurants Program Text Amendment

  1. The DOT has already gained a track record of ignoring, or paying lip service only, to concerns of residents regarding its “open streets” programs. Now, authority for granting permits for outdoor sidewalk and street restaurant sheds will be conferred on this apparently anti-car agency? In my neighborhood, many of these sheds have already been appropriated by the homeless at night and by city wildlife (i.e., rats and other rodents) 23/7. Others have collapsed in bad weather. All of them (except the only one I am happy patronising, which is in the sidewalk and parking lot area of a strip mall and, hopefully, will NOT fall under the DOT’s jurisdiction) pose a danger because of their proximity to moving vehicles. (Oddly, the DOT approved an “open street” on a 26 block stretch of a residential avenue in my neighborhood instead of on a commercial avenue that contains many restaurants; an “open street” would have protected outdoor diners from vehicles during its hours of operation, whereas the OS on a residential avenue simply adds rodent-attracting street food vendors to an avenue where their presence had previously been fairly rare.) This is today’s DOT: lacking in good judgment and common sense. Please spare us from more of its idiotic decisions.

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