Dining Sheds Are NYC's Last Vestige of the Pandemic
Before COVID-19, just 1,400 city restaurants had outdoor permits. Today there are 13,000 of the structures scattered across the five boroughs, and many are showing wear and tear from life on the street.
In a few short years, outdoor dining sheds have become a fixture on New York City’s streets and sidewalks, as ubiquitous as skyscrapers, yellow taxis and Disney characters in Times Square. Built in response to the pandemic, the sheds were a lifeline for the restaurant industry and a population stuck indoors.
Before COVID-19, just 1,400 city restaurants had outdoor permits. Today there are 13,000 of the structures scattered across the five boroughs. Thanks to the health emergency, sidewalk dining became an option — for the first time — in many underserved neighborhoods outside Manhattan.
Because many were cobbled together during a state of emergency, there is a lack of uniformity of design and construction. Building materials, workmanship and decor range from impressive to impressively bad. Structures, never intended to be permanent, are showing wear and tear from life on the street. Paint is faded and peeling; plywood is splintered; plastic sheeting is clouded, yellow and torn. The overall aesthetic is increasingly shabby, especially in winter months.
A growing number of citizens are expressing their displeasure over the lingering structures, and not only because of their appearance. Pedestrians are tired of sharing the sidewalks with diners and serving staff. Locals bemoan the excessive noise, odor, illegal activity, blocked streets and lost parking spaces.
Street cleaners are unable to clean up after the growing rat population, attracted by easy access to food scraps and trash. There are concerns that emergency vehicles cannot navigate narrowed thoroughfares. Many, but by no means all, city residents think the time is right to remove the sheds and move on.
By the end of February, more than 200 sheds had been cleared from city streets and sidewalks because of abandonment and egregious code violations. The Department of Sanitation has enlisted residents in its quest to remove blighted and unused dining structures, tweeting, “See a shed that needs to go? Call 311.”
Some restaurant owners have taken down sheds on their own. The experience of eating in close proximity to traffic and trash falling short of their usual standards. The demise of at least a few others was hastened by errant automobiles.
Without clear direction from the city, many restaurants have been reluctant to invest in shed removal or rehabilitation. The city has spent much of the past year mired in political disagreements and fending off lawsuits that sought to end the era of outdoor dining.
But now the City Council is expected to finalize an outdoor dining bill, possibly sometime this month. The legislation will decide on design parameters, whether or not the street and sidewalk structures may be permanent or seasonal, and which city department will oversee the program. Unlikely to please everyone, it is hoped that the new rules will strike a balance between the wants and needs of both restaurants and neighborhoods.
Someday, with masks and mandates a distant memory, the city’s dining sheds will still be here. How many and in what form, remains to be seen.