The COVID-19 pandemic has exacted a destructive toll on the restaurant industry. But New York City’s commercial landlords can smile at the latest CRBE report saying that food and beverage tenants were the most active in terms of the number of transactions closed in the third quarter this year. Much of that success can be owed to the creative resiliency of the city’s restaurants as indoor dining restrictions overhauled restaurant layouts. When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled an emergency policy that allowed al fresco dining, it became a vital lifeline for thousands of cash-strapped restaurants when indoor dining became off-limits. With the clock ticking, most restaurants threw up a simple shed structure out of construction pallets and plastic sheeting to get back in business. Of course, these sheds became a bane to many New Yorkers who are already dealing with limited parking and crowded sidewalks. However, as the restaurant industry settles into the post-pandemic world, this could signal a massive shift in the functionality of street-side retail.
As the pandemic raged, restaurant owners in New York City pleaded with de Blasio’s office for a more comprehensive dining plan, only to hear crickets. Over time, many restaurants augmented their makeshift structures into contained environments with heat lamps, weather-proofing, decorative landscaping, and a splash of paint. Others, however, still look like rough-hewn barricades. I asked one restaurant manager why so many of the outdoor pavilions were crude eyesores. She preferred to not go on the record so, for the sake of anonymity, we’ll call her Stacey. “As far as those fixtures were concerned,” Stacey says, “we really had no idea how long they were going to be up. Plus, restaurants had to build those things out-of-pocket, and a lot of places didn’t have that much money to begin with since they had to cut down capacity or close during the lockdown.”
That temporary outdoor dining ordinance eventually morphed into the Open Restaurants Program, which set out more explicit ground rules for extending a restaurant out to the sidewalk. A restaurant could only occupy curbside space that matched their storefront’s width, the outdoor fixtures needed ramps from the sidewalk to the street to comply with ADA guidelines, and safety barrier elements to shield diners from traffic. As time marched on, the Open Restaurants Program was extended again and again until measures to make the program permanent entered public review on June 21, 2021.
Jeremy Wladis, the owner of “Good Enough to Eat” in the Upper West Side, was thrilled when Mayor de Blasio announced that outdoor restaurant fixtures, which in many cases double the restaurant seating, could stay. Considering that the cost of food and labor has shot up thanks to a combination of shipping delays and the “Great Resignation,” restaurants need the income from that extra seating that the outdoor fixtures allow. “It really is a lifesaver,” he told CBS News.
Taking back our streets
But other sectors of commercial development may not share that same optimism. On October 6, a coalition of Downtown Manhattan community leaders and lawmakers opposed the “wholesale ceding of public space to one private industry” to the City Planning Commission. Specifically, complaints of clogging walkways and hoarding parking spots came up. When I brought the sacrifice of parking spots up to a New York City Department of Transportation spokesperson, I could hear the eye roll over the phone. “New York City has 3,000,000 parking spaces, and only around 8500 of those were given up to make room for the Open Restaurant fixtures. If you do the math, that’s not even one percent. The temporary program managed to save 100,000 jobs. Compared to 8,000 spaces and change, that’s not even a fair comparison,” he said.
Nevertheless, al fresco dining is changing the face of New York City. The NYC Department of Transportation and the Department of City Planning announced a six-month public engagement process to fine-tune the zoning texts and local licensing laws to keep the Open Restaurant Program going. “Getting design right is among the most important elements of our coming Open Restaurants program,” DCP director Anita Laremont stated in a press release, “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.”
I asked Joe Marvilli, a press officer with the NYC Department of City Planning, what the outreach program would entail. “We are still in the very early stages of the outreach process,” he said. “We’re aiming to conduct remote and in-person events in all five boroughs, and we’re also working with an alphabet soup of different agencies, commercial developers, restaurant owners, and pedestrians in order to make sure that this works for everyone on our streets.” Joe went on to tell me that we can expect an announcement on design guidelines in the spring of 2022.
New, but old
Since a dramatic commercial design shift is already underway, one retail architect has an idea of where that can lead. In an in-depth interview with Wired, Sterling Plenert posits that “as we move into the next phase of sidewalk cafes, New York City can learn a lot from European cities. While outdoor dining and taking back streets from vehicular traffic is something new for us, in Europe, it’s been happening for years. [Outdoor dining] is part of the urban fabric of those cities, and it’s very successful.”
Here’s what we can learn from the famed European café culture: outdoor dining doesn’t have to be an obstruction in the sidewalk or streetscape. In a classic European café setting, rather than sitting face-to-face with your dining companion, it’s customary to sit side-by-side. The street becomes a theatrical experience. “It becomes a tourist attraction in its own right,” Plenert affirms.
Clearing the path and lessening the competition for space necessitated another program, called “Open Streets.” Where Open Restaurants seeks to extend seating out into public space, Open Streets closes stretches of roadway to most or all vehicular traffic to make space for pedestrians and non-vehicular activity. “It becomes like a block party that’s permanent,” says Plenert. According to Plenert, the best way to accomplish that would be to allow for a “full greening” of New York City. Green scape, trees, and landscaping are all part of the push to increase the desirability of an area for retail under this new concept. But considering the current residential backlash to the city’s seizure of public space, the Open Streets approach may have a difficult road ahead.
COVID-19 exacted irreparable loss, and part of rebuilding from that tragedy involves picking up any shards of positivity that we can find. One of which is that the pandemic protocols have given commercial developers an opportunity to redesign the city. As the virus begins to recede and diners flock back in an eager attempt to return to normal, New Yorkers are waiting with bated breath on what that “normal” could look like. The streets aren’t getting any bigger, but that’s not stopping city planners from redefining how to use them. Could the future of NYC hold open streets and Parisian architecture? It seems we’ll find out in the months to come.