David Rockwell’s new plans could save eateries in a post-pandemic world

The sprawling sidewalk café lifestyle is prevalent in cities around the world, from Rome to Miami. New York, not so much. But the Big Apple’s cityscape may be changing in response to the ruinous effects of the coronavirus on the restaurant industry.

Last week, Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of New York’s Department of Transportation (DOT), announced that an inter-agency group was looking at how the city could expedite the permitting process to enable outdoor dining for restaurants, giving them additional space for socially distanced dining.

In response, noted architect David Rockwell has created a template for outdoor dining that he is making public for establishments to use if they receive permits. Restaurants that would like to use the template can reach out to his team through his firm’s website.

Rockwell — who has designed everything from Broadway shows to KAOS Nightclub in Las Vegas — is especially well known for his work in restaurants such as New York’s Avra Madison and Catch Steak. Rockwell determined that the pandemic offered a moment to create an outdoor model that could be recreated by many different places, depending on the dictates of their sidewalks and streets. The plans, based on a kit-like module, take into account social distancing space between tables, as well as all-important sanitation stations.

They allow for varying numbers of seats, and include sidewalk fencing and planter benches to create a sense of separation. “We’ve been exploring adaptable and portable designs that extend the inner dining space to sidewalks and beyond,” says Rockwell. “We’ve been inspired by work across the country and globe. Mostly, we’ve tried to utilise designs and materials that can be adapted to reflect the diversity of streetscapes in the city.” Among the restaurateurs Rockwell is working with is Melba Wilson, president of the NYC Hospitality Alliance and chef/owner of Melba’s in Harlem.

“Restaurant operators across the city are nervous about how we can get back to business while protecting the health and safety of our guests and staff. Our small businesses are anchors in their respective neighbourhoods and are key links in the city’s economy,” says Wilson.

Most restaurants expect that they will have to operate at 50% capacity when they reopen, a projection based on restrictions put in place in New York by Governor Andrew Cuomo before their closures were mandated. That is not enough customers for most places to survive, and the potential for outdoor seating could help increase volume.

Rockwell’s designs also serve to make restaurants more visible and enticing to passersby. “We’re excited about these preliminary designs because they weave us into the community during this time of need. How we utilise space is paramount to success,” says Wilson. Rockwell worked with Wilson’s restaurant to develop a test fit for various outdoor seating options, based on the place’s specific site conditions. There are options for restaurants at corners of intersections, adjacent to bike lanes and even alongside parking lanes.

Rockwell, whose projects generally run bigbudget, such as the Equinox Hotel at Manhattan’s US$25-billion Hudson Yards, developed these plans to be adaptable, inexpensive and easy to implement while addressing safety concerns.

Components such as the sidewalk decks are not hard to find or construct, and the plans are scalable for restaurants that are scrambling to open and expand their space. “There is not one easy solution right now to the challenges faced by restaurants here,” says Rockwell. “But it’s clear we need to rethink how we utilise outdoor public spaces. The intersection of streets and sidewalks — and even the centre lanes of avenues, in some cases — can provide much-needed capacity for restaurants.”

Rockwell is also adapting future projects to maximise outdoor space.

For the Italian hot spot Gabriel’s Bar & Restaurant, which is moving to the former Bobby Vans space in Central Park South, the designer is making the restaurant’s façade accessible to the street with access for takeout while creating a sidewalk café that will spill out to the street facing the park. One neighbourhood that stands to benefit strongly from the DOT’s proposed legislation is Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. About 25% of the district’s storefronts are restaurants or cafés, not including rooftops and Chelsea Market vendors.

The district has 62 food and beverage establishments in total. On May 13, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced 12 additional miles of street closures around New York, including three streets in the Meatpacking District that could conceivably be used to expand outdoor dining: both 13th Street and Little West 12th Street between 9th Avenue and Washington Street and 17th Street between 8th Avenue and 10th Avenue.

“The long-held objection to sidewalk cafés is the conflict it creates by taking away public space. But if you take away that conflict area, then restaurants can set up tables further apart, and that will work well for us here,” says Jeffrey LeFrancois, executive director of the Meatpacking District Management Association - Bloomberg