The Real Estate Board of New York to The City Planning Commission Concerning Application No. N210434ZRM (CEQR No. 21DOT016Y) - Open Restaurants/Sidewalk Cafes

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The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is the City’s leading real estate trade association representing commercial, residential, and institutional property owners, builders, managers, investors, brokers, salespeople, and other organizations and individuals active in New York City real estate. REBNY supports the approval of the text amendment (Application No. N210434ZRM – CEQR No. 21DOT016Y) to facilitate a permanent outdoor dining program on the city’s sidewalks.

The text amendment would amend the citywide zoning text to allow the Department of Transportation (DOT) to administer the Permanent Open Restaurant (POR) program. It would remove sidewalk café regulations from the City of New York Zoning Resolution to increase geographic eligibility, therefore allowing sidewalk cafes to become part of a unified sidewalk and roadway outdoor dining program to be administered by DOT.

Using lessons learned from the pandemic, these actions would support the restaurant industry by providing flexibility for the future. The restaurant industry is a critical component of New York City’s economy. Prior to the pandemic, New York City’s restaurant industry had grown 61 percent from 2009 to 2019, and had 23,650 establishments in 2019; providing 317,800 jobs, paying $10.7 billion in total wages citywide, and making nearly $27 billion in taxable sales. These jobs particularly supported immigrant families, as more than 60 percent of NYC resident restaurant workers were immigrants in 2018, compared to 45 percent across all occupations. In addition to New York City restaurant workers, these jobs support the tourism industry by drawing tourists, as evidenced by the fact that after lodging, the restaurant industry is the second largest component of tourism spending.

The current temporary Open Restaurants program provides access and ease of use for sidewalk and roadway cafes. The text amendment would make these provisions permanent as part of a multi-prong suite of actions – this text amendment, followed by a transfer of oversight from Cultural Affairs to DOT, and then agency rules at DOT to administer a single program with design guidelines for street dining structures. The cumulative goal is to reduce the administrative burden to the city and to food service establishments, combining the sidewalk and roadway outdoor dining programs under unified agency oversight, and retain the primary public right to the street.

By eliminating geographic restrictions, the text amendment bolsters an industry that is in need of supportive intervention during its ongoing economic recovery from the pandemic. Importantly, removing administrative barriers will allow for greater access to the program and therefore provide new opportunities to a diverse range of restaurants and entrepreneurs. This will hopefully help to make up for the huge economic loss suffered by this industry. Restaurants, their owners, and employees have been hard hit by the pandemic, experiencing a 38 percent drop in employments from December 2019 to June of this year, and some restaurants are still facing a 50 percent decline in revenues.

Given the adverse impact of the pandemic to all in-person establishments that serve food and beverages, REBNY encourages the administration to build upon the proposed text amendment and allow for even more opportunity to support the City’s economy by allowing wineries, breweries, cafes, and other relevant and related establishments that do not have an FSEP to apply for the program. It is also important to note that support for the zoning text does not translate to full support of future rulemaking in this space. With the permanent expansion of the program into the streets, it is critical that issues related to circulation and potential conflicts with street cleaning, bicycle lanes, pedestrian right of ways, transit and bus stops, and the ability for freight and delivery to continue are all managed and accounted for.

The City’s vibrancy is made richer from the success of dining and drinking establishments, and a zoning amendment to ensure flexibility is appropriate to the future development of the City. The success or trials this sector faces have direct and indirect impacts on the city’s business climate, other industries, culture, comfort, convenience, and the health and welfare of New Yorkers and its visitors. Therefore, REBNY asks that the City Planning Commission approve the zoning text amendment.