First he set up tents, then igloos. Then came the parklet decked out in seasonal décor.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor dining space has been critical to business at Patrick Russell’s restaurants in Fells Point. The owner of Kooper’s Tavern and Sláinte, on Thames Street across from the waterfront, took early advantage of temporary pandemic-era privileges allowing Baltimore restaurants to install tables and chairs in parking spots as a way to boost sales during a trying time.
“It’s kept us in business,” Russell said of the 60-some outdoor seats available to the restaurants’ customers.
As the weather turns and another al fresco dining season winds down, city officials are looking to establish permanent rules for those once-temporary outdoor dining privileges. The Baltimore City Department of Transportation released a draft outdoor dining policy Oct. 14 for public comment, giving residents, business owners and others wanting a say in the future of the city’s curbside dining infrastructure until Nov. 14 to share their thoughts.
Advocates say preserving the parklets presents a rare opportunity to transform the city’s streetscapes, adding vitality to spaces once occupied by parked cars, while supporting the local restaurant industry’s ongoing recovery.
But there are other factors to consider, too, such as less parking for retail stores, the aesthetics of outdoor dining structures, accessibility and safety for diners. Some restaurant owners also are raising concerns about the cost of the program, which could require businesses to pay thousands of dollars a year for a privilege that has been free throughout the pandemic.
In a statement, the city’s transportation department said efforts to transition the emergency, pandemic-era outdoor dining program into a permanent one fall in line with the agency’s emphasis on “walkability, pedestrian safety and re-imagining the city’s public right-of way.” The department has issued approximately 120 permits for temporary outdoor dining spaces since the program launched in June 2020.
The push to pin down rules for Baltimore’s parklets comes as other Maryland jurisdictions extend their outdoor dining privileges, too.
In Annapolis, City Council members voted to continue to allow outdoor dining through October while the town considers a longer term plan that takes into account the amount of parking available and the impact on other businesses. Baltimore County established a permit approval process that allows restaurants and bars to renew outdoor seating privileges on an annual basis. And Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and county council members this week extended emergency legislation making it easier for the county’s restaurants to offer outdoor table service.
A first course in fees for outdoor dining
Under the proposed rules in Baltimore, the city would issue minor privilege permits for dining parklets located in parking lanes. Parklet structures would need to be temporary — no bolting or permanent attachments to sidewalks, roads or buildings allowed — and the parklets would not be permitted to host live outdoor music or other entertainment.
For the first time since the pandemic’s onset, there would be fees associated with these curbside dining spots. Though restaurants with seating on sidewalks and in other public areas have long been required by the city to pay fees based on square footage and amenities such as awnings, canopies and planters, businesses that added parklets during the pandemic were not charged.
According to the draft regulations, permit costs for parklets would be calculated based on the fee structure for cafe seating, which costs restaurant owners $337.50 a year for up to 80 square feet of outdoor dining space with tables and chairs. Each additional square foot of dining space costs $14, according to a fee schedule published online.
For a large parklet like Russell’s, which measures 1,600 square feet, the tab would add up to more than $21,000 a year.
Some restaurant owners say paying for outdoor dining space during the winter months, when al fresco business is sparse, would be a challenge for budgets already strained by inflation and still in recovery from more than two years of pandemic-related hurdles.
“Right now, restaurants still need all the help that they can get,” said Chris Amendola, who owns the Station North restaurant Foraged.
Amendola’s “forest-to-fork” fine dining spot offers outdoor seating in a parklet set up in the parking lane on North Charles Street. Many of his diners still feel more comfortable sitting outside. And outdoor dining is an attractive option for all diners when the weather is pleasant.
“We’ve always got people wanting to eat outside if it’s nice,” Amendola said.
He doesn’t plan on continuing outdoor table service during the winter, however. The chef and restaurateur said building the infrastructure for outdoor dining in the colder months — buying heaters, for example, or adding a tent with flaps to seal off the chill — feels like more trouble than it would be worth.
In Fells Point, Russell said he already has poured thousands of dollars into outdoor seating for Kooper’s and Sláinte. He installed a tent but took it down after hearing from neighbors who thought it was unattractive. Last winter, he set up transparent dining igloos, which were a hit with customers seeking to limit contact. In the spring, he spent $75,000 to change the parklet configuration once again, buying new chairs, booths and lighting.
Though Russell agreed the city should charge a fee for parklets in order to compensate for lost parking revenue, he said he hoped the rates would be “reasonable.”
“There has to be a happy medium of concessions on how to afford it and make it feasible,” he said. “What we can’t be faced with is shutting down a parklet in November and then removing it. No one has storage for that.”
Curbside safety, design concern residents, owners
Safety also has been top of mind for some restaurant owners who have had to deal with damage from cars colliding with their outdoor dining space.
In Federal Hill, a car plowed into SoBo Cafe’s curbside parklet in 2020, knocking down a tent and destroying tables, chairs, potted plants and other décor. The crash happened after hours so there were no diners in the parklet at the time.
Amendola also had to deal with recent damage to the outdoor dining setup at Foraged. In late September, a driver ran into the parklet’s barriers, shutting down outdoor seating until Amendola could have them fixed.
Foraged also was closed at the time, but Amendola said he was heartened to see that the planter boxes he installed with water barriers inside them successfully protected the parklet.
“None of our tables from the dining area were affected, so it was good to see those barriers actually played the role they were meant to play,” he said.
The city’s draft policy includes fire safety and accessibility standards, as well as some protective requirements such as mandatory barriers between outdoor dining spaces and the roadway, but it does not dictate much about the aesthetics of the parklets.
Russell, who decorates his outdoor dining space with seasonal touches like pumpkins and mums, said he would welcome some design requirements.
In Fells Point, he said, “we’re still in a historic community that we want to preserve, so we want to look nice, not like it’s junky.”
Laurie Schwartz, the executive director of the Waterfront Partnership, said design standards could be helpful “as the economy improves.” But, she said, the parklets have already “added more life and vitality to neighborhood streets.”
Schwartz said she hasn’t heard complaints about outdoor dining from residents and businesses in the Waterfront Partnership’s service area, which spans the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, Harbor Point and Fells Point neighborhoods.
In Federal Hill, the response to dining parklets also has been mostly positive, said Beth Whitmer, the president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association and vice president of Federal Hill Main Street.
“I think if you were to do a poll, you’d find probably a large majority of people are very interested in keeping outside dining alive,” she said.
Still, she said she has heard concerns from some business owners that the parklets infringe on already-limited customer parking.
Whitmer also said the community “would welcome a little more consistency and safety in the parklets.”
“They were left up to the business owners and constructed pretty quickly because of COVID,” she said.
Jackie McCusker, the owner of Nacho Mama’s and Mama’s on the Half Shell in Canton, said the parklets offer her South Baltimore neighborhood a “kind of European cool.” She spruces up her outdoor dining area with festive additions like pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees in the winter.
“We all went through so much in shutdowns and holding onto our businesses, and although it was very difficult there have been some of these so-called blessings,” she said.
Without COVID, McCusker said, “we would have never known what a parklet was.”