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Ryder Kessler: In Defense Of NYC’s Open Restaurants Program

Ryder Kessler is running in the Democratic primary election to represent New York’s 66th State Assembly District, which includes Manhattan neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Hudson Square, Tribeca, and a portion of the East Village. Kessler enthusiastically supports New York City’s Open Restaurants program—recently made permanent—which oversees the many sidewalk cafes and structures built for outdoor restaurant dining during the pandemic. Kessler’s opponent, incumbent Deborah Glick, has publicly opposed continuing Open Restaurants. Glick’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The election is currently scheduled for June 28, 2022.

Open Restaurants has been extremely popular and very successful. During the pandemic, it was a lifeline for businesses, for the 100,000 hardworking New Yorkers they employ, and for residents of these communities excited to be able to continue to socialize and enjoy a meal and a drink with friends and family. In addition to being a core economic engine for these small businesses that make up the foundation of our neighborhoods, it’s also something New Yorkers really have enjoyed about the evolution of the streetscape. When there is polling about it, Manhattanites, particularly, have an 84 percent approval rate for this program.

I think the question now is how to improve, strengthen, and streamline the program going forward to make sure it’s serving every constituency who shares the streetscape. That’s going to include making systematic changes to things that have been relatively freeform. But it has to start from the place of wanting to preserve and expand the best parts of this program.

There are folks who are very interested in having those conversations—a lot of the restaurant operators, a lot of neighbors, a lot of elected officials—but unfortunately there’s also a smaller group of folks who don’t want to have that conversation, who want to end the program wholesale, and who want to go back to an earlier status quo where the streetscape was dedicated predominantly to parking. I don’t think anyone should be complacent about assuming that just because Open Restaurants has been successful and popular that we can be sure it will continue. We’ve seen that recent litigation has been successful at forestalling some of the progress on generating a longer-term program.

The standardization of structures so that water can pass smoothly through and around them—and that they don’t impede the collection of waste and things like that—is important. Restaurant owners and operators, community members, and many elected officials are very excited to have conversations about what the aesthetic and structural standards need to be.

That said, it’s premature to say there’s some specific set of guidelines I am signing on to. We’re early in the process of figuring out what the long-term ideal structure is. I think it’s more about willingness to come to the table with the owners and operators who are investing big sums of money in the structures they are putting up to the benefit of their employees and community members. They are doing that with a lot of uncertainty and potential whiplash about what they are allowed to do. We just need clarity.

I cannot imagine the benefit of shutting Open Restaurants down and starting over when we can see today the vibrancy of the streetscape facilitated by this, and the benefits it’s bringing to folks who work and live in these communities. The question is, what is the alternative? If we shut it down and start over, we’re going back to an old status quo where the streets belong mostly to this small minority of car owners who enjoy the free parking that New York provides—parking space equivalent to 12 Central Parks. What Open Restaurants has done is provide a very tangible vision of what an alternative use of the streetscape looks like.

We know, too, that all of the parking spaces induce more driving, and we are living in a time when we have an unabated climate emergency and also record-high traffic fatalities. Thinking about usages of the streetscape that do not prioritize drivers is really compelling and urgent. What Open Restaurant has given us one window into an alternative future. The clear choice to me is improving and building on that, and expanding it into other usages of the streetscape, like more protected bike lanes and busways, and containerized trash, rather than going back to some status quo that worked for a small minority of New Yorkers.

I think there are two aspects to those who object to Open Restaurants. One is addressing the legitimate concerns head on, because I think they are fair. When I am out talking to voters, everyone is frustrated by the mountains of trash and the record number of rats. But then we have a conversation about the data that showed rat sightings increasing even before the pandemic started. Then increased household waste skyrocketed during COVID, combined with sanitation cuts and the fact that New Yorkers, uniquely among cities like us, pile our trash bags openly on the street. Those are the things that are contributing to the trash problem and rat problem. There isn’t clear data that suggests that it’s due specifically or predominantly to outdoor dining. So I think having fact-based conversations to say, “What can we do to solve this problem? How can we containerize trash and increase the frequency of sanitation service?”.

The second component here is that too often, a small minority of voices who have particular political power are overrepresented in these deliberative processes. I’m a member of Manhattan Community Board 2, although they would insist on a caveat that I am not speaking for the board, I can speak only for myself. Whether it’s Community District 2 or the 66th Assembly District or Downtown Manhattan, the city belongs to everyone. It belongs to the 84 percent of people who love the program, and the 100,000 people who work in these restaurants—people who do not all have the opportunity to participate in the forums and town halls. We have to remember which voices aren’t being heard. A holistic view of ensuring that we’re equitably and sustainably allocating the streetscape and including all voices—even those who are generally not as often heard—is a core component of how I think about it.

And for the folks who are dissatisfied with Open Restaurants, I want to have honest, authentic conversations about our shared frustrations, our shared values, and evidence-based solutions to address them. Certainly I have had many conversations about rats and trash because everyone is frustrated by them. But people are very receptive to having a conversation about what the data says the problem is, and what the data suggests that solutions are. People are so enthusiastic about the idea of trash containerization. They are shocked that we haven’t done it sooner, and they are excited about the idea of having some parking spaces allocated for containerization. We’ll see what the new trash containerization pilot program does—whether it’s broad and goes as far and as fast as it needs to.

But the vast majority of people I talk to on the street love outdoor dining. They are frankly shocked that their assembly member is using her time and political capital to march in rallies in Washington Square demanding that the program end wholesale. So the people I talk to on the street are a very different tapestry of New Yorkers than my community board colleagues—who I very much enjoy working with. The majority opinion in that group of 50 is frustration and antagonism to the program. But when we’re actually out on the street talking to people brunching and walking around with their dogs and enjoying a nice day outside, it is very difficult to find people who have anything but positive feelings about Open Restaurants.