This is going to be a real change for anyone living on Cornelia Street, especially if these dining sheds permanent after the pandemic. There are 10 of them on this one tiny narrow block. Only a few are open right now, but the other ones are getting ready. @ebottcher pic.twitter.com/NdIfVplBp8— CentralVillageBA (@CVBA10014) March 12, 2021
Remake New York is the new buzzword for pundits and politicians. It envisions the post-pandemic city as a blank slate on which to try out cool new ideas. There’s nothing wrong with cool ideas but actual policy requires more than slogans and press releases. It requires planning. It requires expertise. It requires debate and public input.
Permanent outdoor dining is warning for what can go wrong when you remake New York on the fly. Beginning as a temporary measure designed to help restaurants survive the lockdown, the public took to outdoor dining right away. After a grim spring, when moving vans were more common than taxis, people loved the sight of the funky shacks, festooned with fake flowers and painted in gaudy colors, that were bringing life back to the streets.
Elected officials love popular programs, especially if the official has worn out his welcome. Mayor de Blasio jumped all over outdoor dining, declaring that it must “be part of city life for years to come.” Just a few weeks later his wish became an actual law mandating “the establishment of a permanent outdoor dining program” by October 1, 2021. In the blink of an eye, and with no debate, the city tossed out long-established policy, ignored long-established zoning restrictions and gave away public land — sidewalks and roadways—to private businesses.
Local Law 114 is a textbook example of how not to make policy. At a single hastily convened hearing, members of the City Council tossed softballs to representatives of the restaurant industry and Business Improvement Districts. Representatives of the neighborhoods impacted by the new law were nowhere to be found. The official voice of these neighborhoods, Community Boards, didn’t learn what was in the bill until after it had passed.
The one saving grace of this whole misbegotten process was that the city had an entire year before the permanent program took effect. One would think that the Mayor and City Council would have used that time for due diligence on a program they’d cobbled together so quickly. Instead, elected officials took the three-monkeys approach: neither seeing, hearing and certainly not speaking of the problems that came with outdoor dining.