Dozens of Abandoned Dining Sheds Demolished Amid Complaints



An outdoor dining shed on West 32nd Street in Koreatown. Photo by Devashri Bhujbal

Trash bags line the intersection of West 32nd Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown. The foul smell of food waste fills the air. In many places, where makeshift structures for the city’s Open Restaurants program once stood are now abandoned sheds serving as dumping grounds.

“At night, the stinking heap of trash becomes unbearable,” said Tommy Harris, a food delivery worker who frequently picks up orders from restaurants in Midtown’s Koreatown neighborhood. “The restaurants simply dump the garbage on the street leaving no way to drive.”

The city introduced the Open Restaurants program in 2020 as a temporary plan to bring people back to dining outside their homes, while indoor public dining was restricted because of the pandemic. The city later moved to make the program permanent. But since the program launched, some restaurants have closed and left their abandoned outdoor dining structures in the street. Others that are still in use, have been accused of not following program regulations.

According to the Department of Transportation, there are over 12,600 outdoor dining structures across the city. Data from citizen’s complaint hotline 311 indicates that through September 9, 1,479 complaints against abandoned outdoor dining sheds have been registered for 877 different sites. Of those 877 sites, 190 of them are in Midtown.

One of those restaurants is New Wongo on West 32nd Street.

Garbage heaps near outdoor dining structures on West 32nd Street and 6th Avenue, popularly known as Korea Way in Koreatown. Photo by Devashri Bhujbal

Despite this, the restaurant said its shed complies with the city’s rules and is still in use.  “It is used as a waiting area for customers. They can take their drinks and sit outside but we don’t serve outside anymore,” said Robert Chae, a staff member.

Across the street at Jongro BBQ, a staff member who asked not to be identified because of concerns over her job, offered the same explanation. “We have discontinued outdoor dining and the shed is used only as a sitting arrangement for waiting customers.”

“It is absolutely against the rules to use the outdoor structures when it is not operated for dining,” said Cheri Leon, member of the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy. The alliance is fighting to remove the open dining plan’s permanent status. “The Open Restaurants program was introduced temporarily and as per rules, any abandoned structure unused for more than 30 days should be removed.”

In August, Mayor Eric Adams announced an initiative to demolish abandoned dining structures and urged residents to continue alerting the city about problematic sheds in their neighborhoods. Since the mayor made this announcement, 55 outdoor dining structures have been demolished, according to Charles Kretchmer Lutvak, the mayor’s deputy press secretary.

Hell’s Kitchen resident and community activist Ina Selden said while progress has been slow, she has seen some abandoned sheds along 9th Avenue removed. “Many of these sheds were either in severe violation of safety codes and sanitation, provided room for rats, were eyesores, abandoned or combination of all,” she said.

But, in other areas of the city, residents said there are still abandoned and non-compliant dining sheds cluttering their sidewalks. “The unused structures are not only eyesores, but they are risky and give rise to crime and illegal activities. If the mayor’s office is pulling down the abandoned sheds, I really don’t see anything significant on the ground,” said Tanya Bonner, a Washington Heights resident and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the permanent open dining policy. Bonner and 34 other city residents filed the lawsuit against the city in July, accusing the program of being reckless – without concern for noise and pollution.

Despite the lawsuit, the city’s Open Restaurants program is here to stay and applications for new restaurants to open outdoor areas in the coming year are open.

Sheldon isn’t happy about this. “With all COVID policies relaxed now, the outdoor dining program also needs to be taken back,” she said.

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to the Midtown Gazette’s request for comment on the lawsuit or the future of the open dining program.

*This story has been updated. A previous version of this article misspelled  Ina Selden’s surname; it is Selden. Additionally, Tanya Bonner is a Washington Heights resident, not Inwood.