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NYC’s Open Streets Program Gears Up for 2021 Run

Restaurants used the popular initiative to fill up closed-off streets with tables and chairs last year

A sign attached to a police barricade reads, ‘No thru traffic. Open streets: Restaurants’ as the city moves into Phase 3 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic on July 7, 2020 in New York City. Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

NYC’s Open Streets program is back in business. During a Thursday press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city is once again opening applications for its popular Open Streets initiative, which blocks off designated streets to car traffic and turns the spaces over to restaurants and pedestrians for outdoor dining, events, and other activities. Both new and returning Open Streets participants must apply to be involved in the program in 2021.

“We’re welcoming community organizations from all over the city to join into this effort,” de Blasio said. “We want to have lots and lots of participation in every kind of community, every zip code, all over the city.”

Throughout last year, the city shut down a total of 83 miles of streets across NYC for pedestrian and restaurant use, after initially announcing a goal to shut down 100 miles of streets for the program. There was no similar overall goal tied into the announcement today.

The Open Streets program was a boon for restaurants during a months-long stretch when indoor dining was banned and not every operator had access to adequate sidewalk space to set up tables and chairs outdoors. In some instances, restaurants banded together to apply for permits to shut down their block and convert a street into an outdoor dining destination. De Blasio announced last September that the initiative would become permanent in NYC following a successful summer run.

However, the program has attracted some criticism. The closed-off streets require a fair amount of upkeep — cars regularly destroyed the flimsy wooden barriers blocking off the streets last year — and subsequently, not every neighborhood has been able to maintain their car-free streets. Politico reports that 22 miles of the original 83 miles designated for the Open Streets program have since shut down; half permanently, and half temporarily due to the winter weather.

The Open Streets Coalition, a group of 63 organizations including neighborhood associations and local bicycle alliances, sent a letter to the mayor last week advocating for greater safety precautions and other measures to strengthen the program in its second year. The coalition called for more city resources dedicated toward supporting Open Streets, including beefed-up road barriers, signage, seating, and planters. The current groups maintaining the closed-off streets are typically volunteer-led, and any amenities are paid for by money raised through community fundraisers.

To that end, city officials said in the press conference that the program would be better codified this year, and local communities would be better supported in efforts to maintain the blocked-off roads. Improved signage and stronger road barriers would be included in the initiative this year, according to de Blasio.

“We are going to ensure that it is even better in 2021 than in 2020,” de Blasio said. “We have a chance now to learn from some of the things that we did in 2020 and improve upon this amazing initiative.”

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