Ryder Kessler is running in the Democratic primary to represent New York State’s 66th Assembly District, which includes the Manhattan neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Hudson Square, Tribeca and part of East Town. Kessler is an enthusiastic supporter of New York’s recently made permanent Open Restaurants program, which oversees the many sidewalk cafes and structures built for outdoor dining during the pandemic. Kessler’s opponent, incumbent Deborah Glick, has publicly opposed the continuation of 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 hugely popular and successful. During the pandemic, it was a lifeline for businesses, for the 100,000 hardworking New Yorkers they employ, and for the residents of those communities who are thrilled to be able to continue socializing and enjoying a meal and a drink with their friends and family. Besides being a key economic driver for these small businesses that form the foundation of our neighborhoods, it’s also something that New Yorkers have really appreciated in the evolution of the urban landscape. When there are polls on this, Manhattanites, in particular, have an 84% approval rating for this program.
I think the question now is how to improve, strengthen and streamline the program going forward to ensure it serves all of the ridings that share the streetscape. This is going to include systematic changes to things that have been relatively free. But you have to start by wanting to preserve and develop the best parts of this program.
There are people who are very interested in having these conversations—a lot of restaurant owners, a lot of neighbors, a lot of elected officials—but unfortunately there’s also a small group of people who don’t want to have this conversation, who want to end to the wholesale program and who want to return to a previous status quo where the streetscape was primarily dedicated to parking. I don’t think anyone should just assume that just because Open Restaurants has been successful and popular, we can be sure it will continue. We have seen that recent litigation has succeeded in preventing some progress in creating a longer-term program.
Uniforming structures so that water can flow freely through and around them — and so they don’t get in the way of garbage collection and things like that — is important. Restaurant owners and operators, community members, and many elected officials are very happy to have conversations about what aesthetic and structural standards should be.
That said, it’s premature to say that there is a specific set of guidelines that I subscribe to. We are at the beginning of the process of determining the ideal long-term structure. I think it’s more of a willingness to come to the table with owners and operators who invest large sums of money in the structures they put in place for the benefit of their employees and members of the community. They do this with a lot of uncertainty and potential whiplash as to what they are allowed to do. We just need clarity.
I can’t imagine the benefit of closing open restaurants and starting over when we can see today the vibrancy of the streetscape facilitated by this, and the benefits it brings to the people who work and live in these communities . The question is, what is the alternative? If we stop it and start again, we’re back to an old status quo where the streets are mostly owned by that small minority of car owners who take advantage of the free parking that New York provides – a parking space equivalent to 12 Central Parks. What Open Restaurants has done is provide a very concrete vision of what an alternative use of the streetscape looks like.
We also know that all parking spaces induce more driving, and we live in a time where we have an unrelenting climate emergency and also record road deaths. Thinking about uses of the streetscape that do not favor drivers is really unavoidable and urgent. What Open Restaurant gave us a window into an alternative future. The clear choice for me is to enhance and build on that, and expand it to other uses of the streetscape, like more protected bike lanes and bus lanes, and containerized waste, rather than returning to a status quo that worked for a small minority of New Yorkers.
I think there are two sides to those who oppose Open Restaurants. The first is to address legitimate concerns head-on, because I believe they are fair. When I talk to voters, everyone is frustrated with the mountains of trash and the record number of rats. But then we have a conversation about the data that showed rat sightings were increasing even before the pandemic started. Then the increase in household waste has skyrocketed during COVID, combined with sanitation cuts and New Yorkers, unique among cities like us, piling our trash bags openly on the street. These are the things that contribute to the litter problem and the rat problem. There is no clear data to suggest this is due specifically or primarily to outdoor dining. So I think I have factual conversations to say, “What can we do to solve this problem? How can we containerize garbage and increase the frequency of sanitation services? »
The second component here is that too often a small minority of voices that have particular political power are overrepresented in these deliberative processes. I am a member of Manhattan Community Board 2, although they would insist on a caveat that I do not speak for the board, I can only speak for myself. Whether it’s Community District 2, the 66th Assembly District or downtown Manhattan, the city belongs to everyone. He belongs to the 84% of people who like the program and to the 100,000 people who work in these restaurants, people who do not all have the opportunity to participate in the forums and town hall meetings. We must remember which voices are not heard. A holistic view to ensure that we allocate streetscape fairly and sustainably and to include all voices, even those not typically heard as often, is central to my thinking.
And for people who aren’t happy with Open Restaurants, I want to have honest, genuine conversations about our shared frustrations, shared values, and evidence-based solutions to address them. I’ve certainly had many conversations about rats and litter because everyone is frustrated with it. But people are very receptive to having a conversation about what the data says is the problem and what the data suggests as solutions. People are so excited about the idea of containerizing waste. They’re shocked we didn’t do it sooner and they’re excited about having dedicated container parking spaces. We’ll see what the new waste containerization pilot program does – if it’s broad and if it goes as far and as fast as needed.
But the vast majority of people I talk to on the street like to eat outdoors. They are frankly shocked that their assemblyman is using his time and political capital to demonstrate in rallies in Washington Square demanding that the program be basically ended. So the people I talk to on the street are a very different mosaic of New Yorkers than my colleagues on the community council, who I really enjoy working with. The majority opinion in this group of 50 is frustration and antagonism towards the program. But when we’re on the street talking to people having brunch and walking their dogs and enjoying a nice day outside, it’s very hard to find people who have anything but positive feelings about it. ‘Open Restaurants.