Forthcoming new rules from NYC Department of Transportation must make it easy

Most of us can agree that outdoor dining has transformed New York for the better.

All you have to do is walk through a neighborhood like the Meatpacking District to see its impact: our city’s streets have become lively and people-friendly — creating community for locals and appealing to tourists — all while supporting beloved restaurants with new opportunities to engage with their customers.

One of the few positive things that came out of the pandemic was an increased desire — and need — to spend time outdoors. New Yorkers have developed a newfound love affair with the public realm: from more emphasis on pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and cycling to more street fairs and activations in public spaces and, of course, the proliferation of outdoor dining in every borough that’s replaced inanimate parked cars with bustling cafes and restaurants.

City leaders clearly understand the economic importance and consumer-driven popularity of the program, which is why they voted overwhelmingly to make it permanent, albeit on a seasonal basis.

But now, what comes next?

The process began with very little red tape, but as time has gone by, it has become more and more confusing and convoluted. Too many questions linger about what types of outdoor structures and setups might be allowed, when new design guidelines will be finalized, and what restaurants can expect under this new system.

Restaurant owners need clarity — and they need it fast. From design to execution, a beautiful, comfortable space can take several months to produce, and the registration for the 2024 season is just months away.

With the Department of Transportation set to issue the new guidelines for what outdoor structures can look like going forward, let’s not lose sight of the work we still have ahead. Making the program permanent was a major victory for outdoor dining’s longevity and a reprioritized public realm. But we can’t let the new rules intimidate or overwhelm restaurant owners who are just trying to figure it all out.

Across the city, many of the restaurants that set up outside are small or family-owned businesses with finite resources. They need simple, affordable, clearly-communicated solutions so that they can take appropriate advantage of the outdoor dining program. If it’s too confusing and burdensome, it may become unappealing for restaurants to want to participate, at which point we’ll risk losing this newfound outdoor culture that’s invigorated just about every corner of our city.

We’ve already heard too many restaurant owners say that they may choose not to pursue outdoor dining given the obstacles once new rules are established. Between finding storage during the winter months, disassembling structures in the fall, reassembling them again in the spring, there are too many steps and not enough resources to support these business operations.

The new seasonal model makes sense and is a happy medium for everyone. But now comes the hard part: implementing this new model in a fair, equitable way that allows as many restaurants as possible in every borough to participate.

We can’t let fuzzy timelines and constrictive rules discourage restaurants from fully participating in the outdoor dining program moving forward. We have to find the right balance to make it equitable, affordable and a worthwhile investment for restaurants while keeping it attractive and engaging for patrons, too.

If it doesn’t make financial sense for restaurants with the twice a year assembly and added storage costs and they’re not seeing the return on investment, the now more vibrant public realm will start regressing to how it was before.

That’s why we need more services that can support restaurants with all of these things — cutting out the endless increased costs and labor for an industry that’s already stretched thin. The city should also partner with private entities to help support this rollout and transition for restaurants to make this program seamless on day one and successful for the long-haul.

As the city begins to finally update our trash management methods for the 21st century, which will further transform our streets for the better, we cannot continue to send the message that car storage on streets is more valuable to us than a convivial dining culture. And it’s a culture that creates jobs and boosts local and citywide economies, too.

We want New York to be an attractive, bustling, and inspiring city — a place that people will continue to choose to live in, enjoy working in and indeed, visit for years to come.

Outdoor dining has transformed our city for the better. Let’s do the necessary work together to make sure it stays that way.

Flutter and Notowidigdo are co-founders of re-ply, which designs outdoor dining shelters. LeFrancois is the executive director of the Meatpacking District.

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