A couple weeks ago, two new stretches of streeteries — outdoor-dining areas built in parking spaces for existing restaurants — opened in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. They’re really lovely and sometimes quite romantic: painted in vibrant yellow, red, and green; planted with leafy shrubs and ferns; and outfitted with modern furniture. The platforms are essentially level with the sidewalk, and umbrellas and tents shade the tables. Because these build-outs tend to calm traffic, some of the inescapable terribleness of New York sidewalk dining — diesel exhaust, roaring noise — is diminished. At night, when the string lights come on, you could almost forget that this was the center of the pandemic in New York. These streeteries hint at what the future of permanent outdoor dining could look like — almost.
The difference between these streeteries — one is Diversity Plaza, a pedestrian-only zone near the Jackson Heights subway stop, and the other is on Woodside Avenue between 76th and 78th Streets — and most of the other ones that have cropped up across the city this summer is that they’re pro bono projects from DineOut NYC, a nonprofit initiative from the design firm Rockwell Group and the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
DineOut NYC worked with the Department of Transportation to identify Restaurant Rows in some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19 where communal installations could work. The first one was on Mott Street in Chinatown. The second and third were in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. This past week, the fourth one opened along Alexander Avenue in the Bronx.
One of the hallmarks of city life during the pandemic has been the so-called streeteries, which started out as makeshift installations when the city began to allow restaurants to take over parking spaces and sidewalks for outdoor dining in July and have since evolved into more elaborate and sophisticated designs with distinct personalities and style. They’ve also become symbols of bootstrapping in the wake of little government assistance to an industry that’s ailing, and, to some, an insidious example of privatization of public space at the expense of accessibility.
But when done right — in a way that allows street life to thrive; that is truly inviting and comfortable to all diners, regardless of ability; that still lets folks pass sidewalks without dodging tables and chairs — they’re brilliant additions to the city. Much like the way DineOut NYC installations are.
Grub Street recently made the case that outdoor dining should become permanent. The recent announcement that indoor dining can resume at 25 percent capacity on September 30 only strengthens the argument. Restaurants already operate at razor-thin margins and aren’t going to go back to pre-COVID volume anytime soon. Space for diners is one of the major hurdles here.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Rockwell Group, which has completed a lot of work for the hospitality industry over the years, has been thinking about the outdoor-restaurant dilemma: what makes a good design, how to create something that could potentially work on any street, and how to scale it.
To date, the design firm has built street seating, pro bono, for individual restaurants in all of the five boroughs. Each project was an iteration as the firm figured out a modular system, which includes flooring, a protective barrier between diners and traffic, booth seating, a standing-bar area, dividers between tables, shading, movable planters, and a telescoping barrier that can block off traffic during open-restaurant streets (where the entire street is closed to cars) and fold back in during normal hours. Depending on what type of experience a restaurant would like to have, and how much space is available, the design can be mixed up to accommodate the constraints. Because it’s systematized, installation in some cases has taken just a day.
“We really wanted to restore the celebratory, shared experience of dining out,” says David Rockwell, a Tony Award–winning architect and the founder of Rockwell Group.
Eventually, Rockwell Group released a free kit of design plans on its site that anyone can download.
These installations have worked only because they were made with donated time, labor, and materials. Rockwell Group called in favors from vendors that shared a generous spirit, like West Elm, Cosentino, the scenic builder Empire Technical Fabrication, and Shawmut Design and Construction. If you couldn’t tell from all their logos emblazoned on the sun shades, Moët Hennessy, AmEx, and Resy funded the endeavor. The city also removed a lot of the red tape that can tie up experimental construction, allowing self-permitting and helping to find suitable streets for prototypes. This model is surely helping a handful of restaurants, but if it depends upon corporate philanthropy instead of funding, it will very quickly hit its limits. Charity isn’t sustainable, and the city really needs thousands of these.
Mayor de Blasio has extended outdoor dining through October 31 and tentatively plans to restart the program on June 1 next year. The success of these four installations augurs what will need to happen in the weeks and months ahead: problem-solving designs (next up: what to do about colder weather); scalable plans that can be fabricated quickly; collaboration between public agencies and business-improvement entities; and extremely generous funding that takes the onus off struggling small businesses to rebuild themselves outside.