February 16

The Future of Restaurant Street Patios

A City-By-City Breakdown on the Regulations Around the Future of Restaurant Street Patios and Their Permanency

When it came time to look into restaurant patio upkeep tips and tricks for the coming spring, we stumbled upon the contentious topic of covid era street patios either no longer allowed or limited per season.

Considering the revenue generated from the added seating is a lifeline for many restaurants, we wanted to update you on the significant news on the future of restaurant street patios around the country.

Buckle up. This article is LLOOONNGGG, but if you want to skip to your city, you can select from the options below:

New York City: Permanent Structures Allowed With Very Important Caveats

By the end of October 2023, the city’s “Dining Out NYC” program went into effect, allowing restaurants in the city to have sidewalk dining areas so long as they meet specific criteria.

The criteria include everything from a fee scale that depends on the size and location, whether structures can be permanent or temporary depending on if it’s on the sidewalk or the roadway, and very specific rules around the structures themselves.

It’s estimated that outdoor dining saved 100,000 jobs during the pandemic. Still, the city began to clamp down on the unregulated patios once complaints of rodents, drug use, and noise (among other things) began to echo through the city.

In August of ‘22, the city had to tear down over 20 structures abandoned by shuttered businesses, adding to the issue.

New Plan, New Rules:

The roadway structures must be removable and are allowed only from April to November. These structures can have a cover to keep out the rain, but they can’t be completely enclosed. This means using a tarp, cloth covering, or individual umbrellas is okay, but definitely not the type of coverings that provide the protection you might need on cooler evenings or hot summer days.

Sidewalk setups will be allowed year-round but still must be open to the air, with no fully enclosed structures.  Again, these structures must be removable to the degree that they “can break down or move easily.” They also stress that the structures must match the aesthetic of the restaurant that owns it, whatever that means. 

Both types of structures must be wheelchair accessible. 

The City began issuing permits for these structures at the beginning of 2024, and any ground-level business that serves food can apply.

San Francisco: Permanent Structures, but It’s Going to Cost You

Back in January of 2023, the city came out with a new plan: limit the number of parking spaces you can occupy and charge annually for each space.

According to OpenTable, the number of San Francisco restaurants that listed an outdoor space increased by almost 300% in 2023—so the trend won’t slow down anytime soon. The question seems to be: is it profitable?

Starting with the fees: most San Francisco restaurants looking for commercial parklet spaces will have to pay over $1,000 annually per parking space occupied. However, depending on your situation, that can be as low as a couple hundred dollars per year or several thousand dollars.

Parklet Structures are removable structures that provide seating on sidewalks and are allowed year-round. The public parklets need to be accessible 24 hours a day and can’t be closed off or removed during off hours.

If you want something that’s only accessible during your business hours, you’ll need either a movable or permanent commercial parklet. Either option can run you $4000 per year annually with two parking spots.

Then there are just tons and tons and tons of rules around these structures. We lost track quickly, and it’s probably a good idea just to go to the Shared Spaces website and download the manual for these structures.

A parklet can only take up two parking spaces, but there are so many restrictions around the distances between the structure, and just about everything else you might find on the street might further limit how big your outdoor dining space is.

You won’t be able to obstruct any views of intersections or be near crosswalks, driveways, or city utility access points. You’ll have to design for sightlines of fire escapes, emergency access points, and around gutters to allow flow during rain. On top of all that, there’s a whole section on the angle a fireman’s ladder has to sit to access the roof.

Trust us when we say they covered everything.

Some restaurateurs are feeling the pain of investing in a structure that no longer meets the city’s requirements. We found several stories of businesses spending upwards of $20,000 to bring their structures up to code or simply remove structures that can’t stay.

Seattle: Phasing Out Safe Start. The New Program is Permanent, but the Structures Cannot Be

The City of Seattle started phasing out The Safe Start program, which launched the outdoor dining program during COVID-19 in January 2023. The program is here to stay, allowing businesses to apply for year-long or temporary permits. The temporary permit is only good between April 1st and October 31st, and structures must be completely gone by the time any trick-or-treaters hit the pavement.

You’ll need to pay for your “Year-Round Business Activation Issuance,” which is currently $1286, plus $211 for each additional space you occupy. The fees seem to increase each year but not by much, but there are multiple fees and permits you may need to add depending on things like electricity, gas heaters, and building permits for taller structures.

There isn’t a lot of scrutiny around the structure beyond the standard. It can’t be on too steep of a hill (the platform must slope less than 5%), which would all be covered by the process of getting the structure approved.

Los Angeles: Just In: “Al Fresco” is officially Aqui Para Quedarse so long as you Tengo Mucho Dinero

Los Angeles was a little late in the game but voted unanimously to make the loosened regulations that allowed for the Al Fresco program to exist during COVID-19 permanent.

There’s an additional requirement for restaurants larger than 3,000 square feet, which is that there must be one ADA Parking Space. There’s a $400 fee for an outdoor alcohol permit if you need one, but all patios must be closed by 10:30 PM with some exceptions.

Fees start at $1200 ($1500 if you’re new to the program). Then, there are engineering permits and inspections. There are 4 in total that range from $150 to $500, and some of them charge by the hour.

The problem here is that a good $1450 of the fees are calculated per seat for limited service. A patio that seats 20 could easily cost a business $30,000.

Many restaurants have decided that the cost of upkeep for the structures overshadows the benefits, and some whole swaths of street patios have disappeared. Adding to those initial costs, it’s generally found that re-issuing these permits, depending on your situation or location, can end up costing $10,000 or more.

If you need to rebuild the structure because of a new rule, you then have to add in the cost of materials and labor to make those adjustments. If your restaurant is near the coast, there’s a Coastal Development Permit, which is at $16,000 but can be shared by many businesses if they’re next to each other—alleviating some of the financial burden. If you don’t have any close neighbors, you’re paying that on your own.

Chef Brian Bornemann said of his parklet at Crudo e Nudo, “…in addition to paying rent and other normal fees such as fire safety inspections, they would be responsible for paying close to $60,000 for the new al fresco program.”

The process is lengthy, too. Six to nine months is the average time from start to finish.

Denver: Permanent Outdoor Structures with Looser Rules means Denver Restaurants Win

After a vote in June of 2023, the post-COVID outdoor structures are allowed to remain permanently, and in doing so, they also loosened the rules around the structures themselves.

The rules focus on the three types of outside areas: one that’s not visible to the public, one that is visible but more tucked away than a sidewalk or street-facing outdoor area, and one that is street-side or sidewalk-facing.

Tents and temporary structures are likely not going to pass the design requirements as the City of Denver is specifically focused on the structures being aesthetically pleasing, with the exception of structures that aren’t visible to the public.

So those restaurants with a back alley or parking lot are pretty free to create any outdoor area they choose (so long as it’s not more than 20% of the total area of the business).

The first year’s above curb structure fee is $600, and $300 every year after that. There may be one or two other permit fees based on things like whether you use gas heaters or not.

Overall, the Colorado Restaurant Association reported an average 18% increase in revenue for locations with outdoor seating. In Denver, it’s clear the benefits far outweigh the costs.

You can find more detailed information here.

Philadelphia Streeteries are allowed to be permanent, but the new rules have turned most restaurateurs off

At the height of the pandemic, there were more than 800 locations with outdoor seating in Philadelphia. However, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, the most recent change to the law has dropped that number closer to 50.

For one, electricity to these patios is no longer allowed, and the structures can only extend the width of the business with the food license—even if your neighbor says it’s okay. You also can’t extend into the street if a bike lane, crosswalk, or median is nearby. You also need to be on a street with enough room for emergency vehicles, at a minimum of 12 ft wide.

Just about every city’s permits require ADA accessibility. Philadelphia is no different here, but some of the new rules make freestanding structures much more difficult to approve.

They cannot connect to any building like an extended awning. They can’t have an open flame for heating or electricity. They can’t connect to the pavement using anchors or be made using shipping containers. Shades and covers for the weather need to be either removable like a large umbrella or permanent and sturdy—no tents, canopies, plastic dome shelters, or anything similarly lightweight will be allowed.

The annual licensing fee will be $1750 whether you’re applying or renewing, and yearly inspections are required to ensure the structure still adheres to the guidelines. You can find links to the application and further details here.

Boston makes outdoor dining permanent, but residents kick it out of specific neighborhoods

Boston is a little different from other cities in that the city charges a monthly fee of $199 for regular outdoor dining and $399 if there’s a liquor license.

The monthly fee structure makes a full year quite expensive compared to other cities, coming in at around $4800.

Restaurants need to amend their license to add an outdoor patio, which requires having a public hearing for residents to air their grievances in addition to various other steps with associated fees.

There is a $200 ABCC fee, a $100 hearing fee (for businesses with a liquor license), and a $170 advertising fee. The public hearing will only be required for the first year.

The structure requirements are standard. The decking must be flush with the sidewalk. Gas and electric heaters are allowed with some exceptions, and shockingly, you can have one cord run across the sidewalk to power your lights and heaters if need be. Animals and smoking are prohibited.

Although there are many bullets in the guidelines found here, restaurateurs seem remarkably free to build whatever structure suits them.

D.C. Parklets have been around for a while. After a rough (and tragic) few years, the program has evolved

Tragedy struck D.C.’s parklet program after an elderly man lost control of his vehicle in 2022, leading to two fatalities and several injured. Since then, the rules and guidelines around where a parklet can be placed and how it’s designed were restricted for the safety of patrons.

Changes include safety devices like a 3-foot wheel stop, reflective flex posts, and structured walls supporting up to 100 pounds. They can only be on streets with speed limits of 25 mph or less and must be directly in front of said business.

D.C. is unique in that no table service is allowed in parklets, and the placement of napkins or condiments for patrons to use is not allowed.

The process for review and approval can take several months, and several permit fees are associated with it. Parklets can only be in metered parking spaces. As far as we can tell, that fee alone is over a few thousand dollars.

More details can be found here, but specific costs of a parklet permit are only disclosed to registered users.

About the author

Jakup Martini

Jakup Martini likes to quote the movie Ghostbusters in social settings... During the rectification of the Vuldronaii, the Traveler came as a large and moving Torb! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex supplicants, they chose a new form for him - that of a giant Sloar! Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of a Sloar that day, I can tell you!


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