Mike’s BBQ got burned.
The popular barbecue joint in South Philly is one of more than 800 eateries that converted its street-side parking spaces into outdoor dining patios during the pandemic. But a new city law has created special zones for so-called “streeteries” to operate — and Mike’s missed the cutoff.
By about 250 feet.
“I’m literally a block away,” said owner Mike Strauss, letting out a weary laugh.
Free from regulations and red tape, streeteries became a lifeline for restaurants and gave birth to a renaissance of alfresco dining. And while many streeteries need to be brought up to code, some restaurant owners say the new system is rigged with winners and losers.
When the law goes into effect next year, dining establishments inside a series of designated streetery zones will be able to reapply for their streeteries by right, but those outside the zone will need special approval from Council.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has until March to roll out the new application process and enforcement of regulations. Details are slim. Spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the rollout will be done “in the safest and most equitable way possible.” Advice for restaurant owners in the meantime? Review the bill, consult a design professional, and call your councilmember.
The new system has created a desperate crush for the restaurant industry, which is grappling with the city’s new vaccine mandate on indoor dining in addition to the surge of coronavirus cases spurred by the omicron variant.
More than 500 streeteries sit within the new by-right zones, which include all of streetery-friendly Center City, all of West Philadelphia, and a few popular commercial strips in outlying neighborhoods.
But the boundaries are mystifying to those on the outside. An Inquirer analysis of city permit data and zone boundaries found that 62 of the 281 restaurants outside the zones missed the cutoff by 500 feet or less — roughly one city block or less.
“To geographically cut [boundaries] off at some arbitrary point, it seems a bit punitive,” said Shane Dodd, owner of the Fairview, which operates a streetery just outside the Center City zone at 21st and Green Streets.
Some lawmakers argue the new law is equitable, because all restaurants — whether inside or outside the new zones — will have to reapply to meet new regulations for their streeteries.
“Most of these people that built [streeteries] knew it was temporary,” said Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district has 319 streeteries, more than double any other district. “Council and everybody is doing them a favor by making it more permanent, with guidelines.”
Some business owners say the process of courting lawmakers can be unpredictable, subject to the whims of district councilmembers. With special permission, some see further confusion and double standards in the regulations.
The modest streetery outside Mike’s BBQ — on the corner of 11th and Morris — sits less than 15 feet from a stop sign, crosswalk, and bus stop. Streeteries are barred from operating within those clearances under the new law. But according to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, that space is still fair game for vehicles.
Strauss wonders: Why do streeteries now have to abide by different rules than vehicles? “If I remove the streetery,” he said, “cars will be parked here.”
Restaurant owners and advocates agree with bringing streeteries up to code. In a rush to lure diners outdoors, many restaurants erected unwieldy structures that impeded pedestrian access, covered access to manholes, or blocked line of sight for drivers and bicyclists.
Still, the end result will be fewer streeteries next year.
“Outdoor dining is the first thing that made Philly seem alive again. We could have been another Paris,” said Ben Fileccia of the PA Restaurant and Lodging Association, who added that restaurants are still drawing up to 20% of their revenue from outdoor dining in the winter months.
How Council upended the streetery system
Lawmakers greenlit an extension on sidewalk seating citywide through 2022, which had an approval system in place prior to the pandemic. But streeteries were a new frontier that needed to be brought up to code.
Councilmember Allan Domb’s original bill sought to make them permanent across the city. But after a clash with Council President Darrell Clarke, the bill was amended to let each district councilmember create their own rules — a nod to the controversial tradition known as councilmanic prerogative, which gives the city’s 10 district lawmakers near-total authority over land-use decisions in their realms.
The results proved uneven: Some districts have no by-right zones at all, while Councilmember Jamie Gauthier stamped her entire West Philadelphia district as a by-right streetery zone.
In far Northwest Philadelphia, Councilmember Cherelle Parker created a by-right zone along a sliver of Wadsworth Avenue. Only half a dozen eateries are located on this strip, but oddly, only one has a permit: a Baptist church that runs a southern cuisine cafe on weekends.
The by-right zones include bustling dining corridors in East Passyunk, Fishtown, and Northern Liberties — but not along Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, a growing hub for immigrant-owned and mom-and-pop restaurants, about a dozen of which hold streetery permits.
Why? The strip cuts through four separate council districts, which proved difficult to sort out in a short period before the bill’s passing. “So instead of a bit of Castor Avenue, now it’s none,” said one Council source.
Like so many land-use debates that consume City Hall, the problem largely traces down to parking.
Akira Rodriguez, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said officials have a duty to provide equitable access on sidewalks.
But she said the process is inherently inequitable when it comes to councilmanic prerogative.
Some lawmakers will likely interfere less with their alfresco dining scene. “Others that are maybe predominantly residential and car-dependent, they’re going to aim for the preservation of parking spaces,” Rodriguez added.
Pending their streeteries’ meeting the new building standards, restaurants in these by-right zones will simply resubmit their permits for approval from the city.
Some Council offices confirmed they will require restaurants to meet with community groups and get support from neighbors before they’ll sign off on approval. But that process happens behind closed doors and, ultimately, rests with the whim of the councilmember.
Outside the zones, few who spoke with The Inquirer were optimistic about getting approved.
Joe Beckham owns three Loco Pez restaurants in three different Council districts.
While his West Philly eatery falls in Gauthier’s fully approved district, his Fishtown and Graduate Hospital locations fall outside the zones by less than a block, meaning he’ll need to seek approval from two councilmembers, Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson.
“I am not hopeful,” Beckham said. With streeteries in hot demand, he reasoned new restaurants might look to open in the fully approved West Philly district, bypassing City Council’s influence over streeteries. “It creates a market distortion,” he said.
Dodd, whose Fairview restaurant falls outside the approval zone in Fairmount, called the new system “punitive and unfair,” but worried about aggravating lawmakers with his criticism now that they control the fate of his streetery.
“I have to worry, if I say something negative, am I on the radar now?” he asked.
Restaurant owners have sunk thousands of dollars into building their roadside eateries — some dropping $10,000 or more on lavish shelters. Many will have to spend more to meet the requirements in the bill, like installing “crash-proof” barriers around streeteries.
But the war over parking spots could deal a stronger death blow, especially to corner restaurants.
Adhering to state vehicle parking laws, Council’s system prohibits streeteries from operating close to stop signs, traffic lights, and crosswalks. But the Philadelphia Parking Authority said local parking rules override the state’s authority. So, cars are clear to keep parking within the 30-foot minimum for stop signs. Corner streeteries, not so much.
“Thirty feet is a country mile,” said Beckham, of Loco Pez. “All of my places are corner locations with traffic controls nearby.”