When outdoor dining was introduced in Philly last spring, it was meant to be a lifeline for businesses that were unable to host diners inside as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It was scrappy, fast-moving, and ever-changing, but it wasn’t necessarily meant to last long. Then, as summer waned into fall and into a very cold winter, outdoor dining began to feel more permanent — in some neighborhoods, the city feels transformed. Colorful awnings and Parisian-style seating line parking spots and parking lots, and even take over entire city blocks.
In June 2020, the city of Philadelphia expanded permits for outdoor “streeteries,” allowing restaurants to take over space that was previously not available to them: curbside parking spots, empty lots, significantly more sidewalk space, and in some cases, entire city blocks. For now, those licenses will be recognized through December 31, 2021, which means that technically on January 1, 2022, restaurants will have to pack up those picnic tables, tents, and even the semipermanent dining rooms and go back to only serving food inside.
But lots of people — from restaurant owners to regular citizens — are hoping the city will extend the licenses permanently, a move that could potentially transform Philadelphia forever.
“The overall sense is that this has been a success for the restaurants and for the city,” says Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy at the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. “It’s really brought a vibrancy to Philadelphia, it’s really highlighted some of the neighborhoods, and we’ve heard overwhelmingly positive feedback. We’d really like to see these programs continue, and it’s something we’re working on with the city.”
Garlen Capita, a senior associate urban designer at WRT who also serves on the city’s planning commission, says the long-term extension of outdoor dining permits has the potential to significantly transform the city, but it’s also not without risk.
“One concern I have as a resident in Philadelphia, and as a Black person, is that once you start privatizing public spaces, there are people that can be excluded,” Capita says. “While all these efforts are great and can add vibrant energy to Philadelphia, we have to balance that with making sure that there are truly public spaces, truly accessible to everyone, and everyone feels comfortable.”
Center City has seen the most outdoor dining build-outs, and the concentration creates an even stronger pull for people who want that experience. But, Capita points out, lots of Philadelphians don’t feel comfortable in those spaces. As the city considers the rollout of more permanent outdoor dining rules, it will need to ensure that not just restaurant groups know how to negotiate the bureaucracy. The city may also need to help offset the cost of creating these spaces.
“In some communities, like in the corridors along the 9th District or in Germantown, where I live, the businesses were struggling so much that outdoor dining didn’t even really happen here,” Capita says. “In terms of the businesses that can take advantage of those extended licenses, I think it’s going to be very limited, and it’s going to be the places that are already doing pretty well.”
According to design director Lance Saunders of Stokes Architecture and Design, the firm responsible for designing outdoor dining structures at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, Parc, Barclay Prime, and the Love, those build-outs run, on average, about $25,000. That sum would be unthinkable for most independent restaurants. Even for restaurants that have gone super-scrappy, building their own structures or simply buying tents, the investment can be a heavy burden, especially during a time when restaurants are struggling financially without concrete relief.
“One potential role for the city would be doing some mini-grants,” Capita says. “And then you could get more than one restaurant to participate, which would help with creating the critical mass that makes people think of it as a destination to go to.” Doordash rolled out a small-scale version of this idea over the winter, funding winterization programs at 60 restaurants in the Philadelphia region in an effort to support restaurants with less access to funding. But is that enough?
Clusters of restaurants with outdoor dining have been particularly successful because of the added energy of those spaces. In some neighborhoods, groups of businesses have been able to lobby the city to semipermanently shut down car traffic to make more space for diners.
Daniel McLaughlin, owner of both Mission Taqueria and Oyster House, has been instrumental in getting the long-term street closure approved. It started as a weekend program, then grew to include more days, and finally was approved through the end of the year. Mission is currently building a semipermanent patio that will allow the restaurant to seat more guests across the width of the street.
According to McLaughlin, the logistics of having the street closure approved have been complicated and time-consuming. If the city does approve these permits in the long term, it will be important to make the guidelines simple and reduce red tape as much as possible to increase accessibility, Capita says.
Capita also suggests that the bill for long-term outdoor dining plans should include dedicating some of those spaces — like empty lots or parking spaces — to outdoor space not dictated by commerce.
“Compared to other places, Philly still has quite a bit of vacancy and quite a bit of publicly owned land,” she says. “COVID-19 has definitely shown that there’s a huge need for open space and accessible spaces for people to recreate outdoors in close proximity to where they live … I’d like to see the city create spaces where people don’t have to buy anything or eat anything to enjoy them, where people feel comfortable and don’t have to worry about being policed out of the space.”
Another important hurdle still remains unsolved: parking.
“The way that our transportation system has developed over the past 50 to 60 years is very car-dependent,” says Laura Ahramjian, an associate planner at Kittelson & Associates Inc., a full-service transportation planning and engineering firm. Though Ahramjian says traffic engineers have historically been very focused on the speed at which roadways allow cars to move, the pandemic has broadened the conversation around what services streets should be offering.
“Some of the conversations around the city have become, ‘Well, maybe the level of service goes down for vehicles, but it’s going to be greatly increased for other modes of travel, like pedestrians and bikers, and for quality of life in general,’” she says.
Ahramjian says she sees this shift as an opportunity to rethink the way that cities like Philly prioritize curbside space. She also pointed out that currently, restaurants are using parking spaces for free, but if these programs are implemented in the long term, charging for the use of those spaces could be a revenue stream for the city — maybe even one that would enable more support for public spaces in other neighborhoods.
“I’m not going to say COVID has given us an opportunity, because of course there have been a lot of negatives,” Ahramjian says. “But it has caused us to rethink even more how we value that curbside space.”
If done carefully, a decision to implement long-term outdoor dining permits could help bridge some of the socioeconomic and racial divides that have challenged the city. If the rules and regulations pay attention to the needs of small restaurants and businesses outside the wealthiest neighborhoods, it could create significant economic value and greatly improve quality of life. Plus, it could be really fun.
“If outdoor dining is done right, I could see it being something that people think of as synonymous with Philly,” Capita says. “Philly already has so much character and so much vibrancy. I think it’s important we celebrate that.”