Commercial Zoning Laws Set to Change for New York’s Open Restaurants

By Published On: November 2, 20213.1 min read

On October 5, the New York Department of City Planning (DCP) and Department of Transportation (DOT) announced “an upcoming citywide public engagement process for design rules on permanent outdoor dining setups located on city streets,” according to the press release.

The city intends to make their Open Restaurants Program, which was implemented as a result of the need for outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic, into a permanent program. Open Restaurants refers to the outdoor dining setups that have been established around the city in the past year and a half. DCP and DOT are currently asking for input from New York residents on how to improve the program, making it “even better,” said DCP Director Anita Laremont.

In June, 2021 a zoning amendment went under public review. Moving forward, the city hopes to implement legislative changes, “such as transferring authority for sidewalk cafes from the Department of Consumer and Workforce Protection (DCWP), which previously administered the program, as well as the establishment of sitting rules, a fee structure and an application review process for the entirely new roadway program.”

In terms of commercial zoning, Joe Marvilli, the Deputy Press Secretary for the Department of City Planning, said the Open Restaurants amendment will not change any design or operational rules for restaurants and other commercial spaces. The law will, however, be “removing geographic restrictions on where sidewalk cafes are allowed,” applying to commercial districts as well.

Other zoning issues under discussion include “ensuring tables and chairs are appropriate distances from fire hydrants and neighboring businesses,” Marvilli said. For issues like these, the city is assessing how best to integrate the Open Restaurants setup with existing zoning laws.

Some specific design guidelines being taken into consideration for the new zoning amendment, Marvilli said, include:

  • Enhancing safe interactions between diners, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians
  • ADA compliance for platforms and ramps
  • Types of shade structures permitted

In the next six months, the DCP and DOT are planning a public outreach program to engage with New Yorkers and hear their thoughts and ideas for the city’s Open Restaurants zoning policies. In the spring, the city hopes to release their new design guidelines, taking into account the public’s input.

DCP and DOT will be holding in-person and remote roundtables throughout the city in the fall and winter. All public outreach sessions will be listed on the DOT website and on NYC Engage for anyone interested in attending.

Other city departments assisting DOT and DCP with the Open Restaurants Program and providing necessary input include:

  • Department of Buildings
  • Department of Consumer and Worker Protection
  • Department of Environmental Protection
  • Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
  • Department of Sanitation
  • Economic Development Corporation
  • Fire Department of New York
  • Landmarks Preservation Commission
  • Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment
  • Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities
  • Public Design Commission
  • Small Business Services

In Spring 2022, the new Open Restaurants guidelines will be released, with information on design parameters and new commercial zoning laws for restaurants. Once the laws are implemented, DOT will publish a visual manual with a “roadmap to restaurants on their outdoor dining structures.”

“Nearly 12,000 restaurants throughout New York City are participating in outdoor dining,” Marvilli said, “providing them with additional revenue as they work to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.”

Marvilli continued, “At last week’s City Planning Commission hearing, around 30 restaurant owners testified that the program has either helped or saved their business. That’s in addition to more than 50 written testimonies the Commission received that said something similar.”

By removing certain commercial zoning laws, allowing restaurants to serve outdoors, the city hopes to revive local businesses and ensure the success of New York’s restaurant industry.

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