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Restaurants in Residential Areas Ask for Seat at the Table for Outdoor Dining Plans

People eat in Herald Square before the coronavirus outbreak.
People eat in Herald Square before the coronavirus shut down.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Restaurants financially wrecked by coronavirus may soon get some relief via a City Council bill that would temporarily allow dining at tables on sidewalks, in parking lots and other outdoor spots — even streets closed to traffic.

But some Brooklyn restaurateurs worry their eateries won’t qualify because they’ve been historically excluded from receiving such permits due to their residential zoning status.

“We are totally left out,” said Charlotta Janssen, owner of Chez Oskar, a French bistro in Bed-Stuy.

Janssen noted that her restaurant would have gotten a permit long ago if it had been eligible. The space just outside is zoned residential, not commercial, which has prevented her and others in the area from qualifying for permits for outdoor dining, she explained.

Now, she fears her business could collapse if help doesn’t arrive soon.

“It breaks my heart that we’re going to be left behind,” she told THE CITY, fighting back tears. “We’ve tried so hard — all of us… We need this so badly now.”

The sidewalk-table bill, introduced by Councilman Antonio Reynoso and supported by 15 other Council members, including Speaker Corey Johnson, would allow restaurants to apply for permits that expire on Oct. 31 — or sooner if social-distancing rules subside.

On Thursday, Johnson said that eateries that wouldn’t normally be allowed permits should be considered.

“We should try to work with restaurants that are not currently zoned for sidewalk cafes, where they couldn’t get this really quickly, but figure out other ways,” he said.

‘Part of the Solution’

If passed, the bill would place the city Department of Consumer Affairs and Worker Protections in charge of doling out permits, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in charge of issuing health and safety guidelines.

The Department of Transportation, which governs streets and sidewalks, would determine which spaces could have outdoor dining.

A shuttered restaurant in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, May 4, 2020.
A shuttered restaurant in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, May 4, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Asked about the Council effort Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “We’re really interested in the notion of outdoors being part of the solution for restaurants and bars.”

Still, he cautioned, the safe return of in-restaurant dining is not necessarily part of a four-phase city reopening plan: “It’s not yet time for restaurants and bars.”

During a virtual news conference Thursday, Reynoso said the City Council isn’t attempting to “unilaterally dictate” what de Blasio needs to do or when.

“What we’re doing is setting guidelines to start the conversation on an appropriate timeline,” said Reynoso, who represents parts of Ridgewood, Bushwick and Williamsburg. “What we don’t want is to get to phase three and have to wait two, three or four weeks thereafter for the plan without knowing how exactly they’re supposed to open.”

‘No Offense to Cincinnati’

Industry groups and elected officials have been pushing for the city to allow outdoor dining beyond the slightly more than 800 restaurants and cafes that already had licenses for outdoor seating, obtained through an arduous review process. Nearly 600 of them are located in Manhattan.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Manhattan Councilmember Keith Powers are among those who have asked the mayor for a game plan.

Johnson and Andrew Rigie of the NYC Hospitality Alliance wrote in a recent Crain’s New York op-ed: “We must begin to think creatively and plan now. If we don’t, we won’t be ready when the time does come for reopening our dining scene.”

Critics of the mayor have noted that New York City lags behind other regions, from the West Coast to the Windy City, already addressing the issue of outdoor dining.

On Thursday, Johnson nodded to those critics, telling an online hearing panel that if Cincinnati can create a plan for outdoor dining — “no offense to Cincinnati” — New York City can, too.

“If Lithuania can do this — one of the smallest countries in Europe — New York City can go about doing this,” Johnson added.

He said the bill will be expedited, as was the recent measure — signed by de Blasio this week — that caps the percentage of fees that delivery apps such as Seamless and Grubhub can charge restaurants.

Eyeing Spaces

Tatsumi Suyama, owner of Trad Room, a Japanese restaurant in Bed-Stuy, said he doubts that the city will allow his restaurant to have outdoor dining in front, because a bus stop takes up a good amount of space on the narrow public sidewalk there.

But it does have a backyard.

“It’s good, people like it,” he told THE CITY.

He said he hoped he could recoup some losses by opening his backyard, because he’s not making enough profit to survive, pulling in only a third of what he earned before the crisis.

“The customers, they don’t want to stay inside,” he said. “I think they’re looking for some restaurants that have outside seating, and they’re going to choose the ones with the outside seating.”

Inoussa Compaore, owner of nearby Zaca Cafe, known for its French and American brunch, said he’s never applied for an outdoor dining permit because his business falls outside a commercial zoning area.

But he believes the sidewalk provides enough space to serve customers outside.

“I’m trying to survive,” Compaore said. “We have to find some solution to bring some money.”

For Janssen of Chez Oskar — who created a change.org petition to garner support for restaurateurs wanting to reopen — outdoor dining could be what saves her and many others from financial ruin.

“Give us all a fair chance to survive,” she said.

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