Should expanded outdoor dining be permanent in Philly? A struggle over who decides is at the center of the debate.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke opposed a measure to give Mayor Jim Kenney's administration the power to approve streeteries. “We already have the authority to do that,” he said.
Philadelphia City Council will consider extending pandemic-era expanded outdoor dining through June — an option that Council President Darrell L. Clarke introduced Thursday after expressing opposition to a proposal to make the so-called streeteries a permanent fixture in the city.
Councilmember Allan Domb last week had introduced two bills to make the expanded dining permanent. But he and the Council leader are butting heads about who has the ability to control them.
Before the pandemic, Council was responsible for approving legislation to authorize sidewalk cafes and street encroachments. Domb’s bill would put Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, via the Department of Licenses & Inspections, in charge of approving and regulating them.
“We already have the authority to do that,” Clarke said in an interview after unveiling his legislation Thursday to extend streeteries through June.
More than 750 restaurants have taken advantage of Philadelphia’s expanded outdoor dining, approved in 2020 to help restaurants survive the pandemic. Even with vaccinations rising, the outdoor dining — for which some restaurateurs spent thousands of dollars to build decks and other structures — has remained popular.
» READ MORE: Outdoor dining streeteries in Philadelphia could become permanent under councilmember’s proposal
Both packages of legislation will now be referred to a Council committee for consideration, Clarke said. Domb said Thursday that he’s open to approving Clarke’s extension of the deadline while he continues to push for his bill.
“This is a great backup plan if we’re not ready to go by the end of the year,” Domb said.
Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, the trade group that represents 3,000 members statewide, said restaurant owners would “breathe a little bit easier” with a six-month extension of the status quo. But he’d still like to see legislation that authorizes the streeteries to stay permanently.
“We’re more than willing to work with Council President Clarke … and all of City Council to add amendments to get their input, but we really want to make sure that the process for these restaurants is uniform and fair and easy,” Fileccia said.
Clarke said he wants to help restaurants survive the pandemic, and he hopes the city will be back to normal by the end of June, when his proposed extension would expire.
“We don’t know what the winter months will bring, we don’t know what new variant will pop up, unfortunately,” Clarke said. “We think it’s prudent to extend that existing code.”
After the pandemic eases, Clarke said, Council could consider individual requests from restaurants to continue with their sidewalk dining — as it did before the pandemic.
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The system that Clarke wants to preserve essentially lets individual councilmembers decide which restaurants get approval for outdoor dining in their districts. The unwritten rule of councilmanic prerogative gives councilmembers unchecked power over land-use issues in their districts because other members customarily defer to their preference when voting on legislation.
Clarke said he has “to answer to the people who live in my district,” and added that he’s heard complaints about parking because streeteries take up parking spaces.
Domb, an at-large member of Council whose personal investments include restaurants and real estate, said that there are now too many streeteries and outdoor dining setups for Council to manage approvals on an individual basis.
“This function should be an administrative function because of the large volume of outdoor seating permits that are out there, and everyone should be treated the same way,” he said.
Fileccia said the expanded dining has helped bring activity to many areas of the city, and noted that the temporary system in place involves notifying councilmembers of applications in their districts so that they have a chance to weigh in.
“I’m hoping that ... between now and June 30 we can figure out a way to make sure this successful program continues,” he said.