Trash bags lined the intersection of West 32nd Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown on a recent Monday evening. The foul smell due to garbage bags piled on the street and leaking waste water near sidewalks filled the air. Many of the makeshift wooden structures for the city’s Open Restaurants program, which kept restaurants financially afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic’s worst days, are now abandoned sheds, the sites that serve as dumping grounds.
“At night, the stinking heap of trash becomes unbearable,” said Tommy Harris, a food delivery worker who frequently picks up orders from restaurants in Midtown’s Koreatown neighborhood. “The restaurants simply dump the garbage on the street, leaving no way to drive.”
The city introduced the Open Restaurants program in 2020 as a temporary plan to bring New Yorkers back to dine outside of their homes, while indoor public dining was restricted because of the pandemic. The city later decided to make the program permanent. But since the program launched, some restaurants have closed and left their abandoned outdoor dining structures in the street. Out of rest that are still in use, many have been of not following Open Restaurant regulations like not leaving adequate space on sidewalks and streets for public use like pedestrian walking or vehicle parking, and for not following health and sanitation rules and giving rise to rodents and noise pollution. The community activists also allege that the outdoor structures, especially the abandoned ones, are being used by houseless New Yorkers for sleeping, and for illegal activities like drug use.
There are over 12,600 outdoor dining structures across the city as of September 2022, according to the Department of Transportation. Data from the city’s complaint hotline 311 indicates that through September 9, more than 1,400 complaints against abandoned outdoor dining sheds were registered for 877 different sites. Of those 877 sites, 190 of them are in Midtown.
One of those restaurants is New Wonjo, a Korean barbecue restaurant on West 32nd Street. The restaurant located at the busy Koreatown location is usually filled with customers and has some even waiting outside to be called. The data from 311 show that the outdoor dining shed of New Wonjo restaurant has several complaints for being ‘abandoned.’ The open restaurant regulations state that if any outdoor dining seating is not used for a 30 day period, it may be deemed as abandoned by the city and must be removed.
Despite this, the restaurant’s staff said its shed complies with the city’s rules and is still in use. “It is used as a waiting area for customers. They can take their drinks and sit outside but we don’t serve outside anymore,” said Robert Chae, a staff member at New Wonjo.
Across the street at Jongro BBQ, a staff member who asked not to be identified because of concerns over her job, offered the same explanation. “We have discontinued outdoor dining and the shed is used only as a sitting arrangement for waiting customers.”
This isn’t the intended use of the outdoor dining program.
“It is absolutely against the rules to use the outdoor structures when it is not operated for dining,” said Cheri Leon, member of the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy (CUEUP), an alliance of neighborhood associations for collective action. The alliance is fighting against the permanent Open Restaurant program advocating that the top-down process that created the permanent program was unjust and undemocratic.
“The Open Restaurants program was introduced as a temporary program and as per rules, any abandoned structure unused for more than 30 days should be removed. It is against policy to use the structure as waiting areas,” Leon said.
The lawsuit filed by CUEUP challenging the city’s Open Restaurant program was dismissed by a court early this week. However, the alliance is considering to re-file the lawsuit.
“The appellate court dismissed the petition saying the filing was not timely and said nothing about the merits of the case. The court’s decision merely delays the reckoning on the city’s end-run around New York State’s Environmental Quality Review law,” CUEUP said in a statement.
In August, Mayor Eric Adams announced an initiative to demolish abandoned dining structures and urged residents to continue alerting the city about problematic sheds in their neighborhoods. Since the mayor made this announcement, 55 outdoor dining structures were demolished, according to Charles Kretchmer Lutvak, the mayor’s deputy press secretary.
Hell’s Kitchen resident and community activist Ina Selden said that while progress has been slow, she has seen some abandoned sheds along 9th Avenue removed.
“Many of these sheds were either in severe violation of safety codes and sanitation, provided room for rats, were eyesores, abandoned or combination of all,” she said. Selden is one of the petitioners in the lawsuit filed against the city in July, alleging that while the outdoor dining program was introduced temporarily during the Covid pandemic under a ‘public health emergency.’ The pandemic is lifting and the program should be rolled back instead of becoming permanent.
But, in other areas of the city, residents said there are still abandoned and non-compliant dining sheds cluttering their sidewalks.
“If the mayor’s office is pulling down the abandoned sheds, I really don’t see anything significant on the ground,” said Tanya Bonner, a Washington Heights resident and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the permanent open dining policy.
Despite the lawsuits, the city’s Open Restaurants program is under process to be a permanent program. The applications are open for restaurants to create new outdoor dining or convert the temporary outdoor dining area as permanent in the coming year. As per the city’s plan, the permanent open restaurant program is expected to launch in early 2023.
Selden isn’t happy about this. “With all COVID policies relaxed now, the outdoor dining program also needs to be taken back,” she said.
The Mayor’s Office did not respond to the request for comment on the lawsuit or the future of the open dining program.
This story has been updated. A previous version of this article misspelled Ina Selden’s surname; it is Selden. Additionally, Tanya Bonner is a Washington Heights resident, not Inwood. The story was also updated to clarify that the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy’s statement was made to the press.