Like most everyone, I love New York City’s Open Restaurants program. Started in June 2020, it allows restaurants to serve customers on sidewalks and in the street without having to pay rent or fees. As a result, owners of restaurants across the city erected improvised sheds that enabled them to stay afloat during the pandemic; allowed us to eat, drink and socialize safely; and made New York feel more like New York at a time when we sorely needed it.
But before it is too late, we need to take these temporary structures down. In their place, we should install a more flexible system that could meet our city’s changing needs — whether that’s upgraded dining sheds, freight zones, community gathering spaces or more we haven’t even dreamed up yet. Let me explain.
The dining sheds look charming and quirky today, but they were built hastily and vary in quality and design. In another year or two, they are going to start looking shabby. Some of them will be unsafe, others abandoned. Some will be damaged by snow plows and garbage trucks. City government, consumed with bigger problems, won’t have the will or desire to put real regulations in place or, more significantly, to enforce them. Over time, the sheds will become an eyesore.
No, I’m not anti-shed. I’m pro-public space. We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake our streets.
Today, the city’s roads are largely used for car travel and parking. But we shouldn’t have to wait for another pandemic to make our curb space more flexible. The program has shown how we could reimagine the city’s streets and sidewalks as vibrant, social spaces. But we need to think bigger than dining sheds.
We could reconfigure street spaces in ways that change depending on the day, season or year. What’s more, we now have technology like availability sensors, embedded pavement lights and digital signage that can change in real time, signaling what uses are acceptable when.
These tools enable New Yorkers to ask fundamentally new questions about our street spaces. Do they need to function as outdoor dining spaces 12 months a year? Or every hour of every day? Can they also double as pop-up retail spaces, temporary work spaces or even safe play spaces when not in use by restaurants? They could sometimes serve as dynamically priced loading zones for trucks, ride-hail services and delivery vehicles — with the revenue going toward recovering and expanding our transit system.
Keeping spaces in active use would bring foot traffic that in turn could also generate additional revenues for the restaurant industry, which should be reimbursed through tax deductions for the expenses they incurred to build the current sheds. Already, Totem Brooklyn, through its design studio Fantástica, has created a modular line of outdoor dining platforms that are functional, customizable and more sustainable.
When I was deputy mayor, my first rule of government was that “anything temporary becomes permanent.” I learned that rule the hard way in my first few weeks in the mayor’s office. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, I decided to put soccer fields in the middle of Pier 40 in Hudson River Park to provide temporary relief for those whose access to playgrounds had been destroyed by the attacks.
Community groups loved the idea, and the plan was that they would be removed once the local fields were restored. But 20 years later, those fields are still there, and in some cases, the desire to retain them effectively blocked plans to rehabilitate or redevelop Pier 40 — even when the plans would have added more recreational space.
It also reminds me of the effort to unify the look and feel of the city’s street furniture. When I moved to New York in 1983, one of the first things I noticed was how dilapidated the bus shelters and newsstands were. The bus shelters were ugly, rusting, leaking, brown metallic eyesores. The newsstands were gray shacks. Year after year, they got worse.
When I began working in City Hall in 2002, I asked Bruce Ratner, who served as the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs under Mayor Ed Koch, why those structures hadn’t been updated. He told me that he tried but failed to replace them in 1978. Efforts to get rid of them in the years that followed were unsuccessful: Newsstand operators were afraid of change; the company that had the right to sell ads on them wanted to keep its franchise.
Finally, after four years of effort involving half a dozen agencies, in 2006 the city unveiled beautiful bus shelters and newsstands that generate tens of millions of dollars of revenue for the city annually, 28 years after Mr. Ratner’s first attempt.
If we don’t act quickly, what’s temporary will become permanent. The forces of inertia will make us miss a golden opportunity to move away from roads ruled by street parking or makeshift dining shelters toward a network of truly flexible public space.
Daniel L. Doctoroff is the chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, an urban-innovation company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. He was a deputy mayor of New York from 2002 to 2008.
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