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City officials across the U.S. have to balance concerns of neighbors and businesses as the industry tries to get back on its feet

06 Apr 2022 10:22 AM | Travis Oliver (Administrator)

Taken from the Wall Street Journal:

Cities across the U.S. are grappling with the messy details necessary to make permanent the outdoor-dining sheds, igloos and patios that helped restaurants stay afloat during the height of the pandemic.

Seattle, Denver, Atlanta and Los Angeles are in the process of developing plans to make their expanded outdoor-dining programs permanent. These programs were often set up to be temporary and allowed restaurants to apply for permits that gave them permission to use parking spaces and sidewalks for dining space. New York City officials are fighting a legal challenge seeking to block its outdoor-dining program

New Orleans will begin reviewing plans this month for a permanent outdoor-dining scene. Adjustments made during the pandemic have led restaurant owners in the tourism-dependent city to rethink their priorities, said Jeff Schwartz, economic development director for New Orleans.  

“Giving businesses an option of thinking about whether they prefer parking or tables, I think is a question that we haven’t asked before,” Mr. Schwartz said. “And it’s exciting to be able to have those kinds of conversations.”

An outdoor-dining area in Queens, N.Y., in January. For many New York City restaurants, the outdoor-dining program has been a lifeline.

So far, 40 businesses in New Orleans are participating in the program, which allows restaurants to set up dining space in public parking spots. The city expects more to join once the program becomes permanent, he said. 

Expanded outdoor dining on sidewalks and on parking spaces, once a novelty at the beginning of the pandemic, has become a vital source of income for many restaurants over the past two years. In Los Angeles, a survey of restaurants with curbside dining areas found that 81% said they would have permanently closed without the outdoor modifications, according to city officials.  

But making those programs permanent can be tricky for city officials with limited funds to ensure outdoor dining is safe, clean and accommodating for people with disabilities. They also have to navigate the concerns of neighbors and other businesses and balance that with the desires of the restaurants. 

The process can be fraught. In New York City, a coalition of residents sued to block the city from making its outdoor-dining program permanent, which currently has over 12,000 establishments participating. They said many of the dining sheds that dot their neighborhoods have become eyesores and magnets for rodents, while patrons noisily eat dinner and drink in the street.  

“There’s more rats, trash, noise, crowds,” said Diem Boyd, a resident of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and one of the people suing to stop the outdoor-dining program. “That’s the reality of the situation.”

For many New York City restaurants, the program has been a lifeline.

Alfredo Angueira operates a bar, beer garden and speakeasy in the Bronx. Those three businesses were “barely able to hang on” in the early months of the pandemic, he said. 

Then, he said he invested a “couple thousand dollars” in outdoor-dining structures. “To say it saved us…that is not hyperbole. That is not me talking it up,” Mr. Angueira said. “That’s the truth. It saved us.”

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Outdoor dining also offers a safer option for diners when Covid-19 infections rates surge. New York City health officials on Friday again recommended that people wear masks in indoor settings, as Covid-19 cases have begun to rebound. They stopped short of reimposing any requirements.  

In the New York lawsuit, the plaintiffs attempting to block the outdoor-dining program allege the city failed to conduct a proper environmental-impact review when considering making the program permanent. A state judge agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the city to conduct a study to examine what environmental impacts a permanent program would have on the city. 

A New York City Hall spokesperson said the city is reviewing its legal options.  “The city has been undergoing a thorough and careful process in preparation for a permanent outdoor dining program,” the spokesperson said.  

In Portland, Ore., more than 1,000 businesses are participating in the city’s outdoor-dining program. So far, restaurants haven’t had to pay for outdoor-dining permits, a policy that is set to end Aug. 31. 

The city will then begin charging restaurants participating in the program, said Dylan Rivera, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which oversees the program. 

The fees will pay to staff teams of engineers to design standards for outdoor spaces, ensuring they have appropriate access for people with disabilities, don’t block visibility at intersections and include other safety measures, Mr. Rivera said. The fees are also expected to help replace the revenue lost from having metered parking spots replaced by a dining space, he said.

Portland hasn’t yet determined how much the fees will be. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has asked the city council to approve enough funding for the program for the next three years to keep the fees modest, Mr. Rivera said. The city’s budget process is ongoing. 

“If we don’t get council support, then at minimum those fees will be much higher than they would have been otherwise,” Mr. Rivera said. 

High permit fees for outdoor dining, however, could alienate some businesses. There was an outcry from restaurateurs in Boston’s North End neighborhood over the $7,500 fee they are being asked to pay for 2022. 

The permit would pay for mitigation measures, such as increased trash cleanup and rodent control caused by outdoor dining, city officials said. 

Mayor Michelle Wu said late last month that North End restaurants could pay a monthly fee of $1,500 that would stretch over the course of five months, giving more flexibility to restaurants that can’t pay $7,500 upfront. About 80 North End restaurants participated in the program last year, according to city officials. 

Restauratants in Boston’s North End neighborhood would have to pay a $7,500 fee to participate in this year’s outdoor-dining program.

“I believe we can come to a situation this summer where our community members, which includes our residents and our restaurant owners, are all thriving,” Ms. Wu said at a news conference. “We need the resources to do that.”

Joe Kinsella, a resident of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, said the city should hold off on imposing these fees on restaurants in the North End. 

“I think this is an issue we shouldn’t be fighting this year,” Mr. Kinsella said. “Just let everybody do outdoor dining again, call it part of the pandemic. Let’s get one more year behind us and make it stable for next year.”

Jen Royle, the chef and owner of Table, a restaurant in the city’s North End, said she hopes the restaurant community will be able to reach an understanding with residents worried about trash and rodents.

“We’re not here to make any residents miserable. They have good points and we have good points,” Ms. Royle said. “The screaming and yelling, it’s not helping anybody. I think everyone’s doing more talking and not enough listening.”

Write to Joseph De Avila at joseph.deavila@wsj.com and Camille Furst at camille.furst@wsj.com


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