Restaurant sheds in New York City have become another subject of discontent for city residents in the post-pandemic environment as urban decay continues to proliferate in the wake of the pandemic and a hurting economy. A citizen group, Cue-Up, has filed a lawsuit against the city to try to rid the streets of what many consider an eyesore, a menace to public health, and the source of a parking nightmare. Yet Mayor Adams, using an executive order, continues to support the restaurant owners who want to keep them up. Many of these sheds are no longer being used so one has to wonder how their encumbrance is being justified as the city spirals deeper into crime and decay. Indeed, according to an article in Bloomberg News, the fear of “rampant crime” may actually be hampering the city’s economic recovery.
The Cue-Up lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, was the group’s second effort to block the city’s push to make dining sheds permanent. The first attempt ended with an order from Justice Frank Nervo of State Supreme Court in Manhattan that directed the city to conduct a thorough environmental review, something Cue-Up had demanded. The city has appealed his order and the sheds continue to block the already congested streets and feed the exploding population of rats. Since most of these sheds stand empty, they have since their installment become dirty and run-down.
The few people who have dined in those still in use, or on the sidewalks next to the huts, have reported close encounters with the rat population.
This second lawsuit was accompanied by affidavits from Manhattan and other borough residents, decrying the conditions that the sheds are creating. “Where I used to be able to smell the trees as I walk my dog, it now smells like decay and urine,” Angela Bilotti, who has lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn since 1994, said in one affidavit. When one of Angela’s neighbors made the same complaint to a restaurant owner in her neighborhood, she got little sympathy. She was told that, “she’s conducting business, so just close [your]windows”.
The original order allowing restaurant sheds was issued in mid-2020 when Bill De Blasio was mayor and it was seen as a godsend to restaurant owners trying to survive the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and to patrons who were looking for a way to escape the lockdown isolation frustrations. That order expired after a few days, but De Blasio issued one renewal after another until his term ended last year. Adams, who succeeded De Blasio, has continued the practice at the risk of being accused of executive overreach.
Michael Sussman, representing the Cue-Up citizen group, argues that “there is no public health emergency” anymore, because the city has dropped the other pandemic provisions covered by the original order and the renewals, including vaccine requirements, mask rules and the Covid test-and-trace program. Each renewal now serves only the outdoor dining sheds to the detriment of the neighborhood.
There are other concerns that are not included in the lawsuit yet are just as relevant. There are reports that the sheds have become havens for public sex acts as well as refuges for the homeless and mentally ill. Parents fear for the safety of their children.
Then there is, and there has been since the inception of the outdoor dining experience, the danger of dining on a sidewalk that is not in any way protected from the traffic. Several major accidents involving cars crashing into dining areas and injuring or even killing unsuspecting customers occurred in the first month of the program alone. In one of the first cases an out-of-control vehicle smashed into L’Wren’s restaurant’s curbside dining area in Brooklyn, New York, injuring several people.
The response from Mayor Adams on Monday has not been encouraging. He described himself as “a big supporter of outdoor dining,” adding at a news briefing on Monday that, “Whatever I can do to help our restaurant industry that employs dishwashers, waiters, bus boys and girls — this is an important industry, and it is an indicator of our city”. He predicts that “the lawsuit is going to play itself out.”
In the meantime, between the rental bike racks and the dining sheds, the horrendous parking problem that defines New York will only get worse. But the restaurant sheds continue to deteriorate and feeds the rats.