It was an unexpectedly raucous event. About 100 people packed a hearing in Manhattan’s West Village in the summer, eager to vent about an issue dividing neighborhoods across New York City.
The matter at hand: outdoor dining.
As city officials presented a plan to make it permanent, residents waved matching signs with slogans like “Outdoor Dining Is Home Invasion.” They loudly booed an official who called outdoor dining a huge success. When another official said New York’s sidewalks have become some of the best dining options in the world, the audience screamed, “Rats!”
“We’re just absolutely going out of our minds,” one resident said, to a roaring applause, “with the emotional distress of every kind of quality-of-life issue you can imagine.”
The fight in the West Village signals the challenges ahead for city officials as they seize on an opportunity to codify one of the most transformative changes to the urban streetscape in recent decades. Starting later this month, officials will host citywide hearings for residents to say what they believe outdoor dining should look like in a post-pandemic world.
Marking a pivotal transition in a return to normalcy, New York now faces the same question as cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta that are weighing proposals to keep outdoor dining: Which emergency innovations borne of the pandemic should remain as permanent legacies?
In New York, the program has turned into a contentious battle over who should have ownership of streets and sidewalks. A group of residents sued the city last month, detailing 108 pages of complaints about outdoor dining. Neighbors have confronted restaurant owners and flooded 311 with calls.
Outdoor dining began as an emergency program in June 2020, after the coronavirus shut down indoor dining. More than 11,000 restaurants participated, and the city estimates that the program saved 100,000 jobs.
Supporters say outdoor dining was a vital reimagining of the streets that salvaged an industry where hundreds of restaurants have shut down for good. The program created more equitable access to an experience that had been almost exclusively available in Manhattan, officials say; the Bronx now has more than 650 sidewalk cafes, compared with 30 before the pandemic.
“Being able to think about the curb as far more valuable than an individual car parking space has been massive,” said Emily Weidenhof, director of public space at the Department of Transportation.
Opponents, however, say that living on a street with outdoor dining means suffering through noise late into the night, rodent infestations and mounting trash. The structures block sidewalks, bike lanes, emergency vehicles and parking spots, which critics see as an unfair land grab that enriches the hospitality industry at the expense of other small businesses.
The Department of Transportation, which is expected to oversee and enforce a permanent outdoor dining program, is negotiating legislation related to its implementation. A permanent program, which would first require the City Council to approve new zoning, would begin in 2023.
City planners say they will look to cities like Barcelona as a model to create larger scale pedestrian-only blocks in neighborhoods, with more enforcement around issues like noise and cleanliness. Officials say they have already stepped up violations against restaurants, including removing unused sheds.
“We want enforcement, and we want compliance because we don’t want bad actors ruining it for all the great restaurants out there that are trying to do the right thing,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which is lobbying in favor of outdoor dining.
Eric Adams, the Democrat recently elected as New York City’s next mayor, has said that he would keep outdoor dining but re-evaluate the safety and spacing of the structures.
Mr. Adams described the restaurant industry — which drives foot traffic into central business districts, tourist hubs and residential neighborhoods — as a “bellwether” for the city’s economy.
In the decade before the pandemic, restaurant jobs, a particularly important source of employment for immigrants and lower-wage workers, grew at double the rate of private-sector jobs overall, according to the New York State comptroller’s office.
Among registered New York City voters, 64 percent said outdoor seating for restaurants was an important use of curb space in their neighborhood, including 78 percent of voters in Manhattan, according to a poll in December 2020.
Still, resistance to outdoor dining has grown — from car owners in Harlem who say the loss of parking spots disproportionately affects blue-collar workers, to older people in Chinatown who say they struggle to maneuver the obstructed sidewalks.
Some opponents have framed the issue as one of class warfare.
“It’s a select group of elite people who can sit outside and eat $40 entrees,” said Jan Lee, the landlord of two Chinatown restaurants, including one without outdoor seating. “They need to rethink their own selfishness in this city.”
At a recent nine-hour city planning hearing, opponents of outdoor dining testified that restaurants had already benefited from federal grants and no longer needed help, calling them greedy. Megan Rickerson, owner of Someday Bar in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, said that the mocking comments were disheartening to hear.
“I don’t think people understand the margins in which we run on,” she said. “I didn’t pay myself for a very long time to ensure the survival of my bar and my staff.”
Some of the loudest opposition has come from the West Village, a downtown neighborhood famous for its historic buildings, gay bars, left-leaning politics and buzzy restaurants. The neighborhood is part of Manhattan’s Community Board 2, the district with the highest number of sidewalk cafes in New York City.
Unlike some other residential neighborhoods, West Village streets tend to have restaurants, bars and apartment buildings sandwiched next to each other on narrow blocks, where the noise from outdoor diners is more likely to filter into bedrooms and trigger tensions.
Last month, a group of West Village and other residents recruited a civil rights lawyer to sue the city over outdoor dining, arguing that it violated state law by failing to sufficiently consider the program’s environmental impact.
One plaintiff, Mary Ann Pizza-Dennis, said she spends up to an hour looking for parking in her neighborhood. (The mayor’s office has said outdoor dining took away about 8,550 curbside parking spots, or less than 0.3 percent of the total spots citywide.)
Ms. Pizza-Dennis, who works in accounting, believes outdoor dining was the reason she saw a rat in her yard for the first time in 15 years of living in the West Village. She enjoys eating outdoors, but added: “I don’t outdoor dine in my neighborhood because I’m opposed to them.”
But Jessica Radow, a West Village resident who works at a software company, said outdoor diners made her feel safer at night and were a welcome relief from the barren streets at the height of the pandemic.
“There are a lot of folks out there, no matter what the change will be, they’re not going to like it,” she said.
Many West Village residents were skeptical of the city’s promises to step up enforcement, saying their relentless calls to 311, the Police Department and the Department of Transportation were often met with indifference.
Stu Waldman said he initially supported the program, but turned against it after the city announced the permanent plan, which he believes was made hastily without enough public input.
“A lot of the sleepless nights about this have not just been from the noise, but from the loss of civic engagement,” said Mr. Waldman, a retired children’s book publisher.
Mr. Waldman said he purchased a decibel meter and routinely recorded noise levels in his doorway equivalent to the volume of a vacuum cleaner.
The noise was so unbearable one night that Dashiell Kupper, who lives in the West Village home where he grew up, confronted a group of 14 diners from Connecticut outside his window. When asked what he said to them, he replied: “Probably nothing that can be printed in the paper.”
Mr. Kupper, a youth basketball coach, said he was bothered that outdoor dining was attracting so many out-of-towners, who he feels are not invested in the neighborhood.
Aaron Hoffman, the owner of Wogies, a sports bar, said he was sympathetic to concerns about the neighborhood becoming too raucous on weekends, but described the opponents as a vocal minority who do not reflect the popularity of outdoor dining.
“Only the complainers will show up to these community hearings, so it’s only one side that is heard,” said Mr. Hoffman, who has lived on and off in the West Village for 20 years. “The people who are happy and content won’t do that because they have lives. They have other things to worry about.”
Gabriel Stulman, who owns three restaurants in the West Village, said the up-in-arms residents and restaurateurs actually share many of the same goals.
“I want clean sidewalks too because who wants to eat in trash?” he said. “Stop acting like I don’t care about the neighborhood and you do.”
The willingness of New Yorkers to dine outdoors will be tested this winter, after the city announced last month that propane heaters could no longer be used to provide warmth for outdoor seating, citing fire safety concerns. Electric heaters, which are less powerful, are still permitted.
The cooling weather worries Sacha Langer, a West Village resident who works at a food start-up and frequently dines outdoors. She said she was unbothered by the crowds, despite living near several restaurants on the third floor of an older building. She described the neighborhood as having “normal New York noise.”
“I feel like it would be totally dead without outdoor dining right now,” Ms. Langer said.
Susan Beachy contributed research.