Philadelphia city officials have quietly released regulations governing the city’s new street law after months of anticipation, and some restaurateurs say the proposed bureaucracy could spell doom for outdoor dining across the city.
Many restaurateurs have realized the new rules adopted by the city council in December would require them to clean up patio structures blocking access and have designs approved by the city for outdoor dining structures built over parking lots.
But in implementing this law, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration adds new regulations that create important and unexpected hurdles for restaurateurs still struggling to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
READ MORE: Hundreds of restaurants shut out by new Philadelphia ‘streetery’ areas – some within a block
Restaurants would be required to pay an annual license fee of $2,200, in addition to a $200 application fee.
The sticker shock doesn’t end there: Restaurants would also have to get a $60,000 bond to cover potential costs of moving their street structures, which officials say could be mandatory during storms. snow, according to the new regulations. New construction requirements — like running generators or underground power lines to power the streets — could add thousands more to the tab.
“For some reason they think now that we’re open we’re rolling in the cash,” said Marc Grika, the owner of Flannel on East Passyunk Avenue. “We lost so much money. We have loans. We are all in debt now.
It is common practice for the administration to refine regulations after a bill has become law. Generally, however, the most contentious issues are debated and resolved during the legislative process.
Crystal Jacobs, spokeswoman for the Streets Department, said deposits are already required for restaurants with sidewalk cafe licenses, and the increased fee would cover “required inspections, additional staff, technology upgrades and online application enhancements”.”
More than 800 restaurants have converted parking spaces into terraces for outdoor dining to survive the pandemic. But when lawmakers sought to bring outdoor dining spaces up to code last year, they sparked a debate about public space, the city council’s land use powers and, of course, the concern about parking availability.
Restaurant owners have largely supported raising standards for streeteries – some of which are lazily built and encroach on the right-of-way – but some have criticized the two-tier approval system. Under the new law, some restaurant owners can reapply for their streets, while others would need special approval from their district councillor.
However, restaurants inside and outside the new zones must follow the new regulations, and some say the proposed code creates more winners and losers. Franchised restaurants will have less trouble paying for increased fees and structural changes, while smaller restaurants will be hardest hit, critics say.
Street officials published the resolutions in a memo on February 11 and published them in newspapers as required by law. But officials did not send regulatory notices to industry stakeholders. And now time is running out.
The settlement will become law on March 11 unless attorneys request a hearing.
“We are not aware of any requests for public discussion at this time regarding this matter,” Jacobs said.
Ben Fileccia of the PA Restaurant and Lodging Association said he was trying to reach an agreement with the Kenney administration, but would request a hearing if no agreement was reached soon. Council member Allan Domb, who sponsored the legislation, said he would also request a hearing if needed.
Even restaurant owners without streeteries have expressed shock at the proposed orders, which began making the rounds on social media last week.
Running electric wires on the sidewalk or overhead is now banned under the new rules, forcing restaurants to lay power lines underground or run noisy generators to provide lighting and power heaters electrical. (Propane tanks are also prohibited in the future.)
“I couldn’t open a street even if I wanted to,” said Chad Todd, owner of Sulimay’s restaurant in Fishtown. “It’s a cash grab…It’s ridiculous.”
Domb said he was also caught off guard. He called the regulations “onerous” and “unfair” for restaurants, which are recovering from months of decimated sales thanks to the omicron wave.
“It’s a bureaucratic mess,” Domb said. “It’s basically the administration saying ‘we don’t want outdoor seating’.”
Like many restaurateurs, Grika said the roughly 30 street seats in his south Flannel fare are the only reason his business survived the worst of the pandemic. He was okay with bringing streeteries up to code, he said, but the new regulations seem to create obstacles for the sake of obstacles – at the expense of restaurants operating on extremely thin margins.
“It’s kind of like they’re trying to create problems where problems don’t exist,” Grika said.
To wit: The Streets Department has said it won’t approve any street design unless it first gets stamped from the city’s arts commission. Businesses and building owners sometimes spend months trying to get approval from the 9-member Design Review Board, which meets every two weeks.
As written, the bylaw would require mandatory removal from streets in the event of “violent weather,” leading some restaurateurs to question whether they would have to tear down structures every time it snows.
“The best example would be snow,” said Jacobs of the streets department, adding that streets can “damage themselves, damage other properties and/or injure pedestrians.” (It was unclear on Monday whether there was evidence of streeteries causing property damage during a storm.)
The $60,000 bond “is similar to, but not exactly like, buying insurance,” Jacobs said. “The business owner is shopping around among bond insurance companies. It pays an annual premium, and the surety company guarantees that if the Streetery is not removed when the order is placed, it will step in and pay for the costs of that work, up to $60,000.
Permit applications won’t open until at least March 24, officials said last week, and a notice will be sent to street operators before enforcement begins.
Two city council members have already introduced bills to expand law zones within their districts. The council committee overseeing the streets department is due to meet on Thursday and discuss the matter.