CB 6 approves NYC’s cafe zoning change 1

Outdoor dining like that on Austin Street in Forest Hills, seen early in the pandemic, soon will be permanent. But it also will have uniform regulations and less red tape.

With a good many of its restaurants taking advantage of relaxed outdoor dining restrictions during the pandemic, it came as little surprise that Community Board 6 voted to recommend changes the city is seeking to the oversight and permanent expansion of cafe and curbside dining.

John O’Neill, the Queens borough planner with the city Department of Transportation, and Hye-Kyung Yang of the Department of City Planning made the city’s last pitch to CB 6 at its regular meeting on Sept. 23.

The city for now is asking community boards to back a plan that would eliminate existing — and restrictive — sidewalk cafe rules. New regulations in the works will greatly increase the areas where cafe seating can be set up.

They also would set stricter guidelines for street facilities, bringing standard regulations to the Wild West setups that the city permitted in order to keep restaurants above water during the height of the pandemic.

“We’re going to take into consideration what has and what hasn’t worked,” O’Neill said. “It is important to recognize that there have been a number of successes and challenges over that time.

“We’re at the start of a very long process.”

The DOT will take over administration of sidewalk dining from the Department of Consumer Affairs and Worker Protection. The hope is to streamline the application process and reduce its cost to businesses.

In her presentation, Yang said in pre-Covid times, 12 restaurants within District 6 had sidewalk cafe permits.

Now, she said, 34 have sidewalk seating only, 12 have roadway service only and 67 have both.

Rather than existing geographic limitations on sidewalk cafes, just about any locations could come under consideration if they can meet requirements for open sidewalk space to offer clear lanes for pedestrians; and if the frontage of the restaurants does not have things like fire hydrants or bus stops.

The DOT right now is looking at regulations that would require 8-foot-wide paths or half the width of the sidewalk, whichever is greater. Hardship waivers could be available allowing owners to go down to six feet.

The Rev. Pat Morgan, a member of CB 6, said keeping the sidewalks navigable is a must, particularly for the elderly and handicapped.

“I’m disabled and I use a walker to assist me,” she said. “In many spots in this community the sidewalks are overrun by businesses.”

O’Neill said new street structures will be seasonal, and will have to be removed in the winter, though business owners will have the ability to apply for waivers under yet-undetermined circumstances.

He also said while existing structures can stay in place for now, new ones will not be approved if they are too enclosed and block the view of important road and traffic signs from drivers.

“Our emphasis is that this is still a sidewalk,” O’Neill said. “You won’t be seeing the fully enclosed structures that you’ve seen.”

Proposed regulations are not expected to be in place until the second half of next year.

The emergency program will remain in effect until early 2023, with the transition process going into place until January 2024.

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