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City setting ground rules for making COVID’s Open Restaurants permanent

The city has kicked off a public outreach campaign to come up with a way to make the COVID enacted Open Restaurants program permanent.

As the pandemic shut down indoor dining and threatened to drive thousands of restaurants out of business, Mayor Bill de Blasio passed an executive order giving sidewalk and roadway space to restaurants.

The effort has been hailed as a lifeline for many small businesses who were struggling to keep their doors open during the pandemic.

However, the ad hoc nature of Open Restaurants brought complaints about blocked sidewalks, traffic impediments and even overbuilt structures taking over the streets.

The new public outreach effort is aimed at coming up with a set of rules and design concepts to even the playing field by giving restaurants more space while helping New Yorkers reclaim their streets.


“Getting design right is among the most important elements of our coming Open Restaurants program – for our health and safety, and for our enjoyment of New York City’s public realm. To get it right, we need input from the public – you. So please, get involved and let’s make the Open Restaurants program even better,” said Department of City Planning (DCP) Director Anita Laremont said as she launched the campaign with Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Hank Gutman.

“Open Restaurants not only helped save New York’s world-renowned restaurant industry, it also showed how we can dynamically reimagine our streetscape,” said Gutman. “Developing design guidelines will ensure that this emergency program can be transformed into a permanent part of our city, anchoring restaurants in our communities so that this program continues to flourish.”

The City began working on a permanent successor to the Open Restaurants program last year. The first phase of that, a zoning text amendment that would remove geographic restrictions on where sidewalk cafes can be located, is currently in public review. Other future phases of implementation will require legislative changes, such as transferring authority for sidewalk cafes from the Department of Consumer and Workforce Protection (DCWP), which previously administered the program, as well as the establishment of siting rules, a fee structure and an application review process for the entirely new roadway program.

While there are rules to the COVID-created sidewalk cafe program, the introduction of roadway dining has raised novel questions about how to best integrate these new setups into the complex environment of NYC streets.

The six-month design engagement process will focus on clear design rules for dining on city streets and culminate with the release of design guidelines next Spring.

Co-led by DCP and DOT,  in-person and remote roundtables will take place throughout New York City this fall and winter. Specifics on these public outreach sessions will be listed in the near future on the DOT webpage dedicated to Open Restaurants as well as on NYC Engage. These discussions will offer opportunities for New Yorkers to share their thoughts on how Open Restaurant structures should be designed to ensure that the final program rules balance creativity, feasibility and cost as they seek to enhance comfort and safety for all New Yorkers.

On a parallel track, a stakeholder outreach process will be facilitated through a partnership with the Regional Plan Association, Design Trust for Public Space and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. These design and advocacy groups will hold a series of independent roundtables to ensure a cross section of challenges, needs and ideas are considered in the design, operations and policy goals associated with the coming Open Restaurants program.

“The Open Restaurants program gave New York diners a new way to use public space, socialize, and support their local small businesses. I’m proud to have been an early proponent of outdoor dining, but as the program transitions into a permanent part of New York City, it’s imperative that the city is engaging communities and relevant stakeholders. I’m excited for the future of this program, and thank DCP and DOT for their work on this,” said Council Member Keith Powers.


Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance added, “Open Restaurants helped save thousands of small businesses from shuttering, it’s credited with saving 100,000 industry jobs, and providing New Yorkers the opportunity to safely socialize while dining alfresco over a great meal during the Covid-19 crisis.

“Now, as the city transitions from the temporary, emergency outdoor dining program to permanent roadway seating, we commend and look forward to working with the Department of City Planning, Department of Transportation, and community stakeholders in a thoughtful public engagement process to develop the permanent Open Restaurants program that’s standardized, sustainable and transformative for our city’s streetscape, neighborhoods, economy and dining culture.”

After the six-month consultation, the design concepts will be released in advance of the City’s rulemaking process, known as the City Administrative Procedure Act, or CAPA. It is through CAPA that the City will finalize and adopt formal rules for a permanent Open Restaurants program, including rules for outdoor dining structures in the roadway.

Following adoption of the rules through CAPA, DOT will publish a final visual “manual” of design guidance, including an easy-to-use digital application that will provide a roadmap to restaurants on their outdoor dining structures. This resource will be made available ahead of the official launch of applications for the permanent Open Restaurants program, expected in late 2022.

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