Community Boards Share Many Concerns Over Permanent Open Restaurant Program

Roadway cafe in Brooklyn. Image Credit: NYC DOT.

Community boards in support and against the application had concerns about quality of life issues and community board involvement in future reviews. Last year’s Open Restaurants program was established to allow restaurants to operate sidewalk or roadway cafes without the extensive approval process to provide safe outdoor dining options during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the program was enabled through an emergency executive order that temporarily suspended the sidewalk café application process, a permanent program would require changes to laws and agency rules. The first step is a proposed zoning text amendment to get rid of the geographical restrictions of where sidewalk and roadway cafes can be located. While zoning text amendments do not need to go through the full ULURP process, it is customary for the Department of City Planning to seek the feedback of community boards for these applications.

While the Open Restaurants program is popular with restaurants – almost 12,000 restaurants citywide currently participate – community boards are more divided about the program. So far, CityLand has collected decisions regarding the proposed amendment for 38 out of 59 community boards.

Twenty-two Boards issued unfavorable or conditional unfavorable decisions: Manhattan CBs 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 11, 12; Brooklyn 1, 10, 13, 14, 15; Bronx 6, 8; Queens 1, 2, 7, 8, 10, 11; Staten Island 1, 3.

Fourteen Boards issued favorable or conditional favorable decisions: Manhattan 5, 6, 8, 9; Brooklyn 8; Bronx 2, 3, 9, 12; Queens 4, 5, 6, 9, 12 and two (Brooklyn 2 and Queens 14) issued waivers of recommendation.

Community boards that were in support of the zoning text amendment wanted to continue to support the restaurants in their communities. The Open Restaurants program acted as a lifeline to restaurants last year when indoor dining was not permitted due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

Many Boards, no matter how they voted, expressed similar concerns when submitting their final decisions. Multiple community boards cited concerns about trash, rodents, noise, the loss of parking spaces and loitering. Other community boards expressed safety concerns about accessibility of the sidewalks for people with disabilities, roadway access, and visibility of street signs. Queens Community Board 5, while in support, raised the issue of liability if someone gets injured in a sidewalk or roadway café structure.

Many community boards had concerns about approving a program without knowing the details of how the program would operate, or what the community board’s role would be in the approval process. In the existing sidewalk café approval process, the Department of Consumer Affairs would provide community boards with copies of the application that contained business and licensing information, along with architectural drawings of the sidewalk café. Community boards would then have 45 days to review the application, call a hearing and vote. While the temporary open restaurants program has guidelines for restaurants to follow, the temporary program does not require the same extensive approval process the previous sidewalk café permit program did. The proposed permanent restaurants program would have a more streamlined approval process than the sidewalk café permit program, but the details of such program have not been determined at this time. As such, it is not clear to what extent community boards will be able to or need to give their feedback and approval for proposed cafes, and what that review process would look like, or how long community boards would have to issue their decisions. Brooklyn Community Board 14 referred to passing the amendment without a detailed plan as “putting the cart before the horse.”

The Community Boards had until September 27th to submit their decisions before the process moved to the City Planning Commission for a public hearing held on October 6th, although Community Boards have continued to meet and vote on the application following a return from the summer recess. For CityLand‘s coverage of the City Planning Commission public hearing for the permanent open restaurants program, click here.

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


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