New York Restaurants Prepare to Shed Their Sheds

Brian Felicetta stands beside a shed at his Morningside Heights, Manhattan, bar on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2022. The Department of Transportation said on Tuesday it does not envision sheds in outdoor dining’s post-Covid future. (Credit: Luke Cregan)

When Spaghetti Tavern first opened last summer at 425 Amsterdam Ave., it stood out straight away. Its outdoor dining shed included converted church pews, odd 19th century photographs, a wall made partly of whiskey barrels, and a plexiglass moose on the roof. Soon, all of that might be in a dumpster.

At a nearly nine-hour-long City Council hearing on February 8, the Department of Transportation said that roofed, walled structures like Spaghetti Tavern’s will likely be banned from any post-pandemic version of outdoor dining.

“We don’t envision sheds in the permanent program,” said Julie Schipper, the director of the agency’s Open Restaurants program. “What would be in the roadway is barriers and tents or umbrellas, but not these full houses that you’re seeing in the street.” The City Council has not yet scheduled a vote on making any streetside dining program permanent.

It was the first public indication DOT has given that the enclosed eateries, which have sheltered chilly diners and enraged critics, will have to go. 

Council Member Marjorie Velázquez said that the fees, regulations, and wait times for a sidewalk café license had dissuaded restaurants from applying for sidewalk space before the pandemic. Only about 1,400 restaurants held those licenses pre-Covid. By contrast, more than 12,000 restaurants currently participate in the Open Restaurants program that allows them to build extensive structures outdoors with few regulations.

Going forward, the challenge for city agencies is to marry these versions of outdoor dining in a way that satisfies the huge appetite New Yorkers have shown for them while answering criticism over noise, crowding, parking, and safety issues. After months of feedback from community boards, city planners, and other stakeholders, eliminating sheds has emerged as an early compromise.

A sketch of what city agencies believe streetside eateries may look like. The Department of Transportation said that it does not envision sheds in outdoor dining’s post-Covid future. (Credit: Department of City Planning.)

After the marathon City Council hearing, bars and restaurants mourned the fate of the sheds in which they’d invested so much time and money. Ryan Gavin, Spaghetti Tavern’s manager, said their unique structure helped save the business when it opened amid a Covid surge last spring. “We’ve got capacity now for 50 people to sit outside. For a small business, that’s huge.”

Gavin’s establishment has sidewalk tables and chairs, which likely would’ve been eligible for a license under the old sidewalk café program. Its shed is only legal under the emergency Open Restaurants initiative begun in the summer of 2020, which has since spawned thousands of sheds across the five boroughs.

Cyndi Stanimirov testified during the City Council meeting that her Red Hook seafood restaurant had invested $50,000 in its outdoor dining setup. Bloomberg reported that some restaurateurs had spent as much as $180,000 on their structures.

Even simple structures can cost upward of $10,000. At Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side on Wednesday, two men worked on repairing heaters in a small shed that owner Gary Greengrass said had cost him a sum in the low five figures. 

Further up Amsterdam on 109th Street, Brian Felicetta, the owner of Lion’s Head Tavern, said he had also spent tens of thousands of dollars on his setup, which has let the sports bar nearly double its capacity.

Felicetta was skeptical about DOT’s vision of what would replace sheds. “We had the tents, we had the umbrellas, those things—they’re not for the city,” he said. “They don’t last.”

He grimaced when asked what it might cost to remove and replace his four sheds given that DOT said that no pre-existing structures would be grandfathered into a permanent program.

“I feel like having these structures, if done right, give a lot more to the neighborhood,” Felicetta said. “I think it would be a terrible mistake if they made everybody rip everything down, considering the hardships that we felt the last two years and how we struggled to even stay alive.”

Benjamin Prosky, the Executive Director of American Institute of Architects New York (AIA NY), sympathized. In an interview Wednesday, he reiterated a call for the future regulations to be flexible.

“There is no one size fits all. There could be a valid reason why someone needs or wants a covered restaurant,” Prosky said. “In general, the Open Restaurants program needs to be more flexible and understand the needs of restaurants.”

Following the hearing, Prosky and other architects expressed a renewed willingness to help restaurants comply with guidelines for a permanent version of streetside dining. 

Over the course of the Open Restaurant program, AIA NY member Andre Soluri has co-led a pro bono effort by design professionals to develop compliant prototypes for restaurants to copy. 

Now Soluri’s Design Corps, and partner groups like Design Advocates are working with city agencies in an effort to shape the guidelines being developed for a permanent version of the program. The group will present new prototypes and recommendations at a forum hosted in partnership with the city next month.

In an interview Wednesday, Soluri said he shared many of the complaints that critics leveled at outdoor dining sheds during the hearing.

“But,” he said, “a majority of the problems and criticisms can be solved with good design.”