Philly food and drink scene

Philly is revising the surprise streetery rules that were a ‘gut punch’ for outdoor dining

The new regulations, which are said to take restaurants’ feedback into account, could go into effect as soon as May 12.

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After outcry from the Philadelphia hospitality community, the city is revising some of the regulations around streeteries to make it easier to continue operating outdoor dining areas.

A lifesaver for restaurants during the pandemic, outdoor tables are still key, proprietors say.

“There’s still lots and lots of people who don’t want to dine inside,” said Michael Strauss, who owns and operates Mike’s BBQ. The South Philly spot is open 12 to 5 p.m. four days a week, and the outdoor space is usually full during those hours, he said.

City Council passed a bill in December that allows restaurants in some areas to keep their streeteries permanently. The Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Streets Department followed up two months later with more rules, which added several financial and logistical requirements.

“It was a gut punch,” said Ben Fileccia, senior director of operations for industry group Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. “We had no say in the regulations. We didn’t know they were coming out.”

Now the Kenney administration is likely making a number of changes to those rules, according to an email from Councilmember Allan Domb’s office, sent to people interested in the regulations.

The likely changes, as of Tuesday, include:

  • Removing the $60k security bond requirement
  • Reducing the annual license fee (the new amount is under review)
  • Eliminating the requirement to remove streetery structures before inclement weather
  • Some additional allowances for heating and lighting

The Kenney administration is also working on a list of layout options that would meet regulations, including options for crashworthy barriers, according to Domb.

“People really like outdoor dining experiences in the city and they want to see this program continue,” Domb told Billy Penn. “We heard that restaurants and their neighbors want to be sure overly burdensome administrative processes are avoided and that the cost of participating isn’t too high.”

The city is planning to issue a final report by May 2, and the new regulations would take effect 10 days after that, per the councilmember’s email.

The Streets Department declined to place a firm date on the next step in its process, saying only that it’s “finalizing regulations” based on input from hearings on the topic, according to spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton.

“We will have more information in the upcoming weeks and will inform businesses interested in participating in the program about the application process,” Keisha McCarty-Skelton added.

Scaled back requirements won’t help everyone

Fileccia, of the PRLA, estimated the December bill would’ve preserved about 70% of the streeteries that had opened during the pandemic — but the licensing regulations released in February took that number down to about 20%.

Among those rules: an annual licensing fee of $2,200, a $60,000 security bond to cover the cost of potential removal of the streetery, and a $1 million insurance policy that named the city as an additional insured.

Streets’ and L&I’s regulations also laid out numerous steps for gaining approval, including a sign-off from the city Arts Commission.

Other requirements — which may now be tweaked — included removal of the streetery structure in advance of inclement weather, and restrictions around setups like heaters, lighting and power sources.

If the regulations actually change as outlined by Domb’s office, “it’s huge,” Fileccia said. “We are really appreciative that the city listened to operators and made these changes.”

Fileccia said reducing some of these hurdles makes the licensing process more equitable financially. He also acknowledged that the legislation isn’t perfect from restaurant operators’ point of view, and isn’t equitable district to district.

Streetery zones were determined by the councilmember for each district. Some, like in Center City and West Philadelphia, cover broad swaths. Others are limited to specific streets. Mike’s BBQ, for example, is just one block away from the designated area on Passyunk Avenue.

Restaurants outside the predetermined zones can seek approval for their streeteries by going directly to their councilmember.

One early iteration of the streetery bill, introduced by Domb, would have expanded outdoor dining permanently across the city. Council President Darrell Clarke had argued each neighborhood should have a greater say in whether streeteries should proliferate on their own roads. The bill that passed in December was seen as a compromise.

Even with the pared down city regulations, some restaurants still may have to shut down their streeteries, at least for now.

Strauss said the most recent proposed changes to the rules still won’t help his restaurant. Mike’s BBQ is near a crosswalk and a stop sign, and the law passed in December prohibits streeteries within a certain distance of both.

Domb attributed that particular issue to state requirements, and noted that public safety is the top priority. He suggested there could be a way to maintain a safe line of sight while allowing a streetery to exist on a street corner.

“Alternatively, we should consider allowing corner properties the option of using an adjacent property with the property owner’s approval,” Domb said.

Fileccia said he hopes there will be a grace period for compliance once the finalized regulations take effect. That could be as soon as May 12, the email from Domb’s office suggested, just in time for late spring and summer outdoor dining.

But the program is likely to continue changing, Domb said, calling this “a starting point.” He added that some councilmembers are already working on adding to their streetery zones.