Philadelphia streeteries dismantled ahead of new regulations crackdown

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Last week, a dump truck hauled away the 87-foot iron dining room that had been outside the Good Dog Bar for more than two years, and just like that, the popular Center City restaurant bid farewell to the outdoor dining era.

“Good Dog was finally allowed to have dogs, but not anymore until it comes back,” said co-owner Dave Garry. “We’re going to lose a lot of new regulars.”

Across the city, restaurant owners like Garry have begun dismantling their outdoor streeteries as the city prepares to crack down on unlicensed streetside patios in 2023.

Proprietors have less than three weeks to apply for streetery licenses if they want to keep their parking-spot dining spaces alive next year, which means complying with a host of new rules that the city previously waived to keep restaurants afloat during the worst of the pandemic. But both applications and approvals are lagging. The Outdoor Dining Program opened its application portal last month, and while 800 restaurants have operated streeteries, just 22 applications had been submitted as of Wednesday, a city spokesperson confirmed. None have been approved.

Rolling back the red tape on streeteries gave birth to a renaissance of street life in 2020. But concerns over scofflaw operators, shoddy construction, and parking spaces morphed into a long and politically charged negotiation over how to bring the al fresco scene up to code.

The end result remains controversial. The city now requires up-front costs like securing a $1 million insurance plan and a license fee of $1,750, but many restaurant operators said it’s the long list of nitty-gritty building requirements that led them to tear it all down.

Meanwhile, some who plan to apply for streetery licenses under the new regulated system fear that the odds are against them and that the financial cost of bringing their outdoor dining structures up to code might not pay off.

A provision barring streeteries within 30 feet of a traffic signal means that most corner restaurants will never see their name on a license. And few restaurant owners see a viable path for approval of enclosed, heatable seating structures that customers have grown accustomed to enjoying year-round — and the displeasure is palpable.

Nicholas Elmi, the chef-owner of Laurel who posted a picture on Instagram of his East Passyunk streetery being broken down last week, said the new regulations would force him to essentially rebuild the $60,000 outpost, including underground electricity to power electric lights and heaters.

Elmi had permission from the neighboring record store to extend the structure into its property, but that is forbidden now, meaning he’d have to lop off a chunk of the streetery.

“It just feels like, it doesn’t matter what we say, no one’s going to listen to us,” Elmi said of the new regulations.

Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz, co-owners of the Fishtown twins Cheu and Nunu, similarly aired their dismay as they disassembled their Frankford Avenue streetery this week. For rowhouse-sized restaurants like theirs, Darragh said the regulations would dramatically reduce the available dining space.

He did the math. With the permit fees, hiring a professional designer, and the cost of building, it didn’t square.

“I’d be spending an insane amount of money for one table,” Darragh said. “It’s laughable.”

Cotoletta on Fitler Square plans to remove its shipping container streetery on Jan. 2 — because those too are banned now. Owner Beth Amadio said she would consider making a new patio, but looking at the rules, she felt the city was “trying to deter someone from building something again.”

Meanwhile, Fredi Loka is doing whatever he can to preserve the enclosed, greenhouse-like streetery at Ambrosia, the Italian BYOB he co-owns in Fitler Square. He said he spent $65,000 building it.

After hiring an architect, Loka learned he’s going to lose at least two of the restaurant’s seven outdoor booths. But without outdoor gas heating — another prohibition under the new code — he doesn’t know how much use the seating will get in the cold months. If he removes the structure entirely, and the regulations loosen down the road, he would spend even more to rebuild.

“I don’t know what we can do,” Loka said. “I’m in a bad spot right now.”

Loka would also need a green light from the Art Commission, which has veto power over all structural streeteries. (Only one application has made it to the commission’s desk, and will not be heard until at least late January, officials said.)

Meanwhile, if a restaurant falls outside one of the city’s by-right “streetery zones,” the owner needs special permission from their district City Council member to obtain a license before.

“I don’t know anybody that has a permit in hand,” said Ben Fileccia, of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, who described the regulatory rollout process as messy. “There’s been a lot of confusion.”

Some cities appear to have kept their rules much simpler. In Pittsburgh, where officials passed streetery regulations earlier this year, the use of outdoor heating devices is still allowed, and permanent structures face fewer requirements for approval. A Pittsburgh official said the annual license fee there is $150, compared to Philadelphia’s $1,750.

Asked if Jan. 9 was a realistic deadline to begin enforcement given the pace of the application process, Streets Department spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton said “enforcement will be ramping up over the winter” and will begin with “the most egregious situations.” Officials have reviewed all 22 applications, she added, and sent comments to the operators to address prior to approval.

Time will tell how many streeteries make the final cut.

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