Earlier this month, representatives from the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of City Planning (DCP) presented a new report to the City Planning Commission regarding the Permanent Open Restaurants Program. The report included unfavorable numbers about one of the legal actions necessary for the first stage of the program’s implementation. Twenty-nine of 51 community boards voted against an amendment that would remove geographic restrictions of where sidewalk cafes could be located within NYC. 

Regarding the results, Carolyn Grossman Meagher, DCP director of regional planning, speculated that, on the one hand, there was confusion amongst members of some boards who weren’t clear that they were voting solely on the amendment and not on the entire program. On the other hand, she said other boards “felt it was important to make their views known about the entirety of the program.”

Bushwick’s CB4 fell into this second category. 

In early October, during a City Planning Commission public meeting, Robert Camacho, chairman of CB4, reiterated his discontent with the program, saying, “We’re sick and tired of this Christopher Columbus syndrome, where they’re coming in here and throwing away natives. Please do not approve of this. Our land, they’re trying to take it away from us. All for money.” 

“Let the community decide, the people that have been suffering in this community,” he added. “All we ask for is a decent place to live.”

A few weeks earlier, Bushwick’s community board sent a letter to the Commission communicating its unanimous vote against the amendment and explaining its reasons. Among them are the rushing of the process and the quality of life problems caused by the current program, such as the increase in sanitary problems and the loss of parking space. As of today, according to the map of the current open restaurants, there are almost 12,000 of these establishments in the city, 217 of which are in Bushwick.

At the recent meeting, Julie Schipper, DOT chief of staff, explained the new measures that will take into account complaints from community boards such as Bushwick’s. Schipper announced that the Permanent Open Restaurants Program will have stricter inspection protocols – especially in matters of sanitation and noise – and a special complaints system through line 311. 

However, as Anna Hayes Levin, DCP commissioner, stated during the meeting, several communities do not trust the DOT. “You’re going to have to really redouble the efforts to establish the DOT’s reputation as an agency that cares about quality of life, as well as the movement of traffic,” Levin said.

At the start of the pandemic, the original proposal to allow restaurants to expand into the streets came from one of Bushwick’s representatives. In May 2020, less than two months after the city went on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Antonio Reynoso, the newly elected borough president of Brooklyn, then Council Member for the 34th District – representing parts of Bushwick, Ridgewood and Williamsburg – co-wrote the bill that proposed emergency outdoor dining. 

In June 2020, following that project, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the beginning of the Open Restaurant Program as part of phase 2 of the city’s reopening plan. Although the program began as an emergency one, at the end of September of the same year, Mayor de Blasio declared that the program would become year-round and permanent. The city estimated that by that time, the program had already saved about 90,000 jobs. In June 2021, a year after the program was created, one of the first steps in this transition began: the review of the zoning amendment by community boards and borough presidents.

Despite receiving a negative majority, DOT only considers what is expressed by boards and boroughs as recommendations. At the meeting, Henry Gutman, the DOT commissioner, said that while the votes from the community boards were disappointing, they weren’t a total surprise. 

“Virtually everything we have done in reimagining the use of our streets has generated opposition, without exception. Whether it’s open streets or bike lanes . . . whether it’s people who prefer to use the streets in other ways, or whether it’s the fact that many in our community don’t like change,” said Gutman. 

Some, like Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, are eager for the program to pass. 

“[Outdoor dining] is credited with saving 100,000 jobs and it kept people safe while providing us the opportunity to socialize over a great meal alfresco during the crisis,” said Rigie.  

However, community boards and other neighbors don’t agree with the program’s implementation. 

Kathryn Arntzen, along with 21 other Lower Manhattan residents, is suing the city to prevent the “highly destructive to neighborhoods and residents” program from becoming permanent.

The next step in the implementation of the Permanent Program is the City Planning Commission’s vote. There isn’t a date set for this.

All images: Natalia Sánchez Loayza

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