In the summer of 2020, amidst both hopes that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic would soon be behind us and concern for the restaurants and businesses that had suffered several months of financial losses, New York City’s Department of Transportation began to allow for the construction and use of outdoor dining sheds under the Open Restaurants program. In efforts to construct usable business space quickly and affordably, many restaurants rushed to put up the sheds using unsightly construction materials like plywood and plexiglass. The program garnered strong support from the restaurant industry, pro-business politicians, and New Yorkers who enjoy the additional outdoor dining options. It also faced forceful opposition from those who object to the use of public street space for private business profit, those with concerns over the obstruction of the sidewalk from emergency vehicle access, and those who are exposed to the increased garbage accumulation and vermin issues that arise from their presence. The current debate over outdoor dining sheds and “post”-pandemic recovery can be described as an issue of competing needs and interests in New York City’s policy process. While many residents no longer see the need for outdoor dining sheds, the growth machine framework that drives city policymakers to prioritize business interests has allowed for the continued use of public space for private profit.
The fate of the dining sheds has changed course many times and currently, their future remains unknown. Though the director of the Open Restaurants Program told a City Council committee that they “don’t envision sheds in the permanent program”, and Mayor Eric Adams (a proponent of Open Restaurants) got a photo op out of his promise to crack down on unused sheds, a recent ruling by the New York Supreme Court may pave the way for the program to become permanent. The momentum behind the city government’s effort to solidify the presence of dining sheds stands in stark contrast with other public infrastructure measures, such as public restrooms, of which New York City only has one for every 6,000 residents. While this article focuses on the use of public street space for private outdoor dining, the restroom example provides context for the critical examination of priorities in the management and provision of public resources.
The Dining Shed Debate
Research and discourse on the Open Streets program and the dining sheds reveal a number of compelling arguments in their favor. One potent talking point in support of the dining sheds is that many of them occupy parking spots for private vehicles, which are not typically seen as a public good (particularly among urban planners). With that said, many of the dining sheds also require servers and customers to cross bike lanes, obstructing access to alternate forms of transport more commonly supported by planning students. This is also a safety hazard to servers, customers, and bikers. On a more personal note, when I had to call the fire department to my apartment building in the summer of 2021, firefighters had to move construction barriers around a dining shed to gain access to the building. Of course, curb obstructions unrelated to outdoor dining will always exist and emergency services are typically able to work around them, but does the “public” benefit of outdoor dining outweigh the critical moments lost when first responders have to navigate around additional barriers? Public street space is more than a hypothetical exercise in urban planning priorities, it is also a limited and shared resource. What takes up space on public streets pushes its other uses to the margins.
The dominating presence of dining sheds also forces garbage to accumulate in the smaller spaces between the sheds, creating taller piles. Additionally, the increased volume of patrons results in more waste output from restaurants. The street space under the sheds provides the shelter and food scraps most critical to the sustenance of vermin populations. Copious evidence and testimony from residents of New York City document the pileup of garbage between the sheds and how they house and foster a comfortable environment for rats. In a 108-page lawsuit brought by a group of residents against the City of New York, the petitioners claim that before they had even applied to make Open Streets permanent, “DOT received thousands of complaints from residents related to noise, vermin, garbage accumulation, crowded sidewalks impeding residents access–all quality-of-life issues constituting a significant impact upon the environment.” Despite this, the city council, the state Supreme Court, and both our current and former mayors have broadly supported private industry in expanding (sometimes doubling or even tripling) their business spaces into public streets with minimal enforcement of safety and sanitation conditions. The shed program forces New Yorkers to shoulder significant quality-of-life burdens while restaurants continue to expand their footprint into public space without paying additional rent. This begs the question: whose pandemic recovery does New York City leadership care about?
Garbage pileup between sheds, credit: Lily Shoulberg
Unsanitary street conditions surrounding dining sheds, credit: Lily Shoulberg
Looking back into New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975 provides historical context for the city government’s involvement in economic growth in the private sector. In 1965, New Yorkers elected John Lindsay to the office of Mayor of New York City. As Joseph Viteritti writes, Mayor John Lindsay “genuinely believed that city governments should be in the forefront of the struggle to alleviate poverty and achieve greater racial and ethnic equality. To that end, he constantly pushed at the boundaries of the city budgetary limits and was very effective in mobilizing unions and other public pressure groups to the cause of higher spending”.1 The higher spending on behalf of New York City’s marginalized residents reflected Lindsay’s priorities and vision for the city as a haven. However, that spending coupled with federal disinvestment in cities, a recession, and a decline in manufacturing left New York City financially insolvent by 1975. This put pressure on subsequent mayors to prioritize the fiscal health of New York City, often by catering to the needs of the private sector. Viteritti explains how Ed Koch sought to persuade the federal government that the city could “live within its means and become worthy of the federal loan guarantees it needed to remain solvent.” Doing so required Koch to prioritize fiscal growth in a manner “that undermined the usual expectations of labor unions, racial minorities, and other components of the city’s well-established progressive coalition.” Viteritti concludes that “the conflicting pressures made him more dependent on business leaders who could be instrumental in restoring the city’s fiscal health”.2
The pattern of prioritizing business interests to keep the city financially afloat continued after Koch, and Viteritti explains that “this realignment shaped the contours of mayoral politics in New York”.3 In perhaps the most glaring example of this long-term realignment, Michael Bloomberg notoriously “saw himself as the CEO of a private corporation that catered to a customer and client base composed of desirable New York residents and businesses, and the city itself as a product to be branded and marketed”.4 There are undeniable parallels between the challenges of the 1970s and 2020 in New York City. Wealthier New Yorkers once again left the city in droves, justice-seeking uprisings threatened the security of private property and businesses, and the tax base that New York relied upon was greatly diminished by loss of income.
Growth and Capital
Understanding how the city came to rely so heavily on tax revenue from businesses for financing of essential city programs, particularly in the face of catastrophe, begins to explain the pattern of pro-business legislation that has set the stage for Open Restaurants to continue at the expense of residential comfort. Harvey Molotch’s work on the city as a growth machine further illuminates the prioritization of private industry profit by city policymakers. Molotch explains the growth machine as a process whereby local governments create “the sorts of physical conditions which can best serve industrial growth” while they simultaneously ”attempt to maintain the kind of ‘business climate’ that attracts industry”. Molotch goes on to write that under the growth machine, expenses incurred by new development “should be borne (and they usually are) by the public at large, rather than by those responsible for the “excess” demand on the urban infrastructure”. In the instance of the dining sheds, the public is forced to cede street space to private industry, who relies on that piece of urban infrastructure to expand their business footprint.
In Capital City, Sam Stein builds on the concept of the growth machine, explaining that in a private land market, property value is of high political priority and shapes planning decisions. He writes that planners must “find creative ways to raise property values—either because they are low and landowners want them higher, or because they are already high and city budgets will fail if they start to fall”.5 However, as Molotch notes, “growth benefits only a small proportion of local residents. Growth almost always brings with it the obvious problems of increased air and water pollution, traffic congestion, and overtaxing of natural amenities”. With historical and theoretical context to explain how city government tends to respond to crisis and falling revenues, the debate over the sheds can be seen as a current example of the growth machine in action.
Because of the city’s reliance on business revenue, public health restrictions on dining threatened the local government’s ability to provide necessary services and infrastructure. In an effort to stimulate business and restore tax revenue, NYC government granted restaurants permission to construct outdoor dining sheds quickly and cheaply, with little regulation. While this theoretically makes sense under the growth machine and follows the logic that governments make decisions in the interest of private industry, the lack of regulation and the permanence of the outdoor dining sheds is actually counter-intuitive to the assumption that pro-business legislation and planning benefits the city. Some restaurants doubled their footprint, but the city does not require additional rent or taxes on this extra space. The dining sheds are sited on public street space, closing it off to public use and generating private profit off of the use of public space. In the winter, those sheds that are unheated occupy public space without even generating private profit or providing a consumer good.
Outdoor dining sheds being used as storage spaces for restaurant equipment and garbage, credit: Lily Shoulberg
No reflection on the pre and “post” pandemic New York City would be complete without considering the racial justice protests that began with the murder of George Floyd. Months of isolation in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately affected marginalized people fostered an environment ripe for powerful and persistent protest. Many protesters called into question the sanctity of private property, disrupting “business as usual” in order to draw attention to wide-reaching systems of inequality. In his book Feral City, Jeremiah Moss describes the tension between the racial justice uprisings of 2020 and the protection of private restaurant properties, writing “sometimes, riot cops rush in to form fortresses around the diners (because consumer pleasure must be protected).” Moss goes on to illustrate how, “at one French bistro…the restaurateur shouts, ‘We’re dying here! We are dying!’ He means his business is struggling, and while that is reason for distress, the word feels wrong in the presence of ghosts, a disavowal of the actual dead”.6 Moss also reflects on revanchism, which he defines as “public policies that seek to regain lost territory.” He explains why Neil Smith re-introduced the term in the 1990s, “using it to describe not only New York’s official policy of gentrification but also an affective state, a take-back mentality that arose after the crash of 1987 when it seemed as if gentrification would reverse, failing to return the city to ruling-class whites, real-estate developers, and big business.” Moss sees revanchism as “a territorial and violent reaction by the powerful trying to hold on to power as it slips away”.7 The 1987 crash re-energized efforts to feed the growth machine by intentionally catering to business interests.
There is a clear through-line that connects the 1975 fiscal crisis, the crash of 1987, and the COVID-19 pandemic as events that threatened the vision of New York City as a profit machine. In all three crises, New York City’s government actively prioritized the recuperation of business and growth over the demands of residents. In the late 1970s, the shift was illustrated by the difference in spending between Mayors John Lindsay and Ed Koch. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the city government pursued gentrification as a tool with which to bring money back into the city following economic turmoil. In 2020, the city voided prior health and safety codes to gift public street space to private businesses in an attempt to save them from closure. In 2022, despite the complete reversal of the restrictions that threatened those businesses in the first place, New York City leadership continues to give public space to the private sector and requires little to no public benefit in return.
We can never reverse COVID-19’s impact on public and private life in New York City, but we can use the information that it gave us to build a more comfortable and livable city. While outdoor dining may be a permanent fixture of city life now, it does not have to come at such a great expense to the general public. The first spring and summer of the pandemic underscored the importance of public outdoor space for many New Yorkers, and the city’s choice to continue giving our limited amounts of public space to private businesses demonstrates a clear and ongoing commitment to prioritizing the needs of business over those of residents. But it simply does not have to be this way. At the very least, restaurants should have to pay the public for use of their space. In a better and more hopeful world, that space would be used for public seating, shade, and shelter. New York City currently ranks 93rd in the US for public bathroom access. With just a shred of the urgency that was put towards the allowance and construction of dining sheds, we could have more public restrooms which would meaningfully improve the comfort of public life in New York City. Whatever the future of Open Restaurants may be, New York City government cannot continue pretending to care for its residents while giving away their land to private industries at no additional cost.
- Viteritti, Joseph P., The Pragmatist : Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 96.
- Viteritti, 97.
- Vitteriti, 102.
- Viteritti, 133.
- Stein, Samuel, Capital City : Gentrification and the Real Estate State (London: Verso, 2019), 11.
- Moss, Jeremiah, Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York (W. W. Norton & Company, 2022), 220-221.
- Ibid, 97.
Lily Shoulberg is a born and raised New Yorker who earned her master’s in Urban Policy and Leadership in Fall 2022, motivated by a desire to see New Yorkers live happily and comfortably in a city that meets their needs. She previously worked in education and hopes to work in the public sector following her recent graduation.