Before making Philly streeteries permanent, focus on design, safety, enforcement. Then add magic. | Inga Saffron
Coming up with the rules for an entirely new building type, especially one that can be as big as a tractor trailer, is no simple task.
To think, it took a global pandemic to end decades of bickering over whether Philadelphia’s parking spaces should be used for something better than storing cars.
Desperate to keep restaurants afloat during the bleak spring of 2020, city leaders were able to pass emergency legislation making curbside dining legal in just a matter of weeks. In a city where parking is always The Most Important Issue, it was remarkable how few people complained about giving up a few hundred street spots so they could continue enjoying a restaurant experience. The spaces, which were soon dubbed “streeteries,” quickly filled up with potted plants and fire pits, transforming those patches of rough asphalt into enchanting hideaways that helped their owners — and the rest of us — get through the darkest of times.
As we emerge from this phase of the pandemic and prepare for whatever COVID has in store for us, it is impossible to imagine life in Philadelphia without access to these outdoor dining oases. It’s time to allow streeteries to become a permanent presence on our streets.
Councilmember Allan Domb, who is part owner of Starr Restaurants, as well as the landlord for several Center City eateries, has taken the first step by introducing a bill to legalize streeteries. Under his proposal (which was cleared by Philadelphia’s Board of Ethics), the city’s building and streets departments would jointly administer the process of approving sites, vetting designs, and enforcing maintenance standards.
But coming up with the rules for an entirely new building type, especially one that can be as big as a tractor trailer, is no simple task. As now written, Domb’s bill, which is scheduled for a hearing on Nov. 9, fails to address many crucial issues, ranging from safety protocols to sight lines. While well-intentioned, his legislation says surprisingly little about streetery aesthetics, and grossly lowballs the price that restaurants would pay to occupy this valuable piece of public real estate — a mere $200 a year.
Domb told me that he is open to changes and that he has begun to refine the bill. But even with those amendments, he may be rushing things.
Pushback is already coming from Council President Darrell Clarke, who has countered Domb’s bill with one that would merely extend the temporary licenses for another six months. While Clarke seems to be a streetery skeptic, his real goal is, as always, to maintain Council’s control over a potential neighborhood amenity (or, in the view of some, nuisance). Rather than making restaurants go through a simple administrative process, as they do in other cities, Clarke believes it should be up to Council members to evaluate streetery applications individually, especially when they are located outside traditional commercial areas.
If it were just Clarke, there might be a chance for a compromise. But the Planning Commission also believes Domb’s bill is flawed and declined to endorse the measure at its Oct. 21 meeting. There is mounting concern, too, from retailers, who fear that the bulky structures could permanently block their signs and window displays. Disability rights advocates argue that streeteries are a safety hazard that should be banned.
All this suggests there is more work to be done. In fact, the Kenney administration has been quietly plugging away on the problem. For 18 months, a committee made up of representatives from various departments has been trying to articulate a set of standards for all streeteries. While they’ve made enormous progress, their proposals have been limited to the sort of nuts-and-bolts issues that keep government bureaucrats awake at night: safety and flexibility.
What’s missing, unfortunately, is any sort of design sensibility to govern the look of these sizable structures. Over the last year, much of the commentary on streeteries has been fixated on the diner’s experience — the pleasures of consuming cocktails and good food under sparkly lights and the blue glow of a patio heater. When you’re swaddled in the cozy den of a streetery, you can feel as if you’ve been whisked off to Copenhagen or Paris. It’s all too easy to forget there are people and businesses that have to look at the other side.
But streeteries are as much a presence on Philadelphia streets as some buildings. Groups of contiguous streeteries can span the length of a city block, obscuring shops and historic facades, and blocking bike lanes. If you’re on the outside, gazing at an immense wooden box, especially one that has been daubed with graffiti or is listing from lack of maintenance, the experience is not so nice. Some temporary streeteries are essentially little more than a ring of metal crowd barriers. Others have already been abandoned after the restaurant went out of business. How do we make sure streeteries don’t become eyesores?
The committee’s work has largely been focused on the basics. To ensure that diners are safe when they’re eating in streeteries, they want restaurants to install crash barriers around their structures. Gas heaters, which are considered a fire hazard, will no longer be allowed. The city also is insisting on designs that can be removed on short notice for utility and street repairs. Under the new rules, the committee would forbid streeteries with fixed roofs and limit the height of their walls to four feet.
The interagency committee should be applauded for making safety a priority. At least one streetery, Café La Maude in Northern Liberties, was hit by an inattentive motorist last spring while diners were inside, injuring several people. A truck pushed Tria’s unoccupied streetery on 18th Street halfway up the block. I sometimes hold my breath as tractor trailers cruise up 18th Street, inches from the streeteries that flank both sides of that street. Most cities now demand crash barriers around their streeteries.
While these proposals make practical sense, they could also compromise the very qualities that have made the temporary streeteries so magical. Based on the images shown at the Planning Commission’s Oct. 21 meeting, the city’s ideal streetery design is a group of tables surrounded on three sides by Jersey barriers, without a canopy or even umbrellas.
That design template is the equivalent of eating a meal of pureed meat and vegetables. We dine at restaurants for the whole sensory experience — the decor, the people, the buzzy scene, and, yes, to satisfy our nutritional needs. The best streeteries — Rouge, Parc, Pumpkin, Booker’s Restaurant & Bar — succeed in creating fantasy worlds in eight-foot-wide parking spots that transport us out of the ordinary grind for a few hours.
Restaurant owners are justifiably worried that diners won’t have much of an incentive to eat in a streetery that is little more than a glorified crash barrier. Having a roof to keep out the wind and rain is crucial, argued Ellen Yin, who owns Fork, a.kitchen, and High Street. “People want to be comfortable when they’re dining out in the winter.”
Once streeteries become permanent, it’s likely that restaurants would start investing in sturdy, well-built structures that can live up to the wear-and-tear of life on the streets. Richard Stokes, an architect who specializes in restaurant interiors and has designed more than 20 streeteries in Philadelphia and Washington, believes it’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with a crash-resistant, easy-to-move prototype that includes a detachable roof. Instead of Jersey barriers, it could be ringed with planters, like the steel-frame streeteries he saw in Madrid this summer. But even with Philadelphia’s current designs, he believes, it’s not hard to move a streetery. It took less than a day this summer for house movers to jack up The Love’s streetery on 18th Street, insert a pair of rollers, and guide it up the block, Stokes said.
Clarke, the Council president, is right to be concerned with nuisance streeteries. It already appears that the Copabanana streetery on South Street has been abandoned. Philadelphia does not have a good record of enforcing maintenance codes, as a slew of neglected historic buildings around the city attest.
But rather than make Council members the arbiters, the city could establish a dedicated staff of streetery inspectors. Higher streetery fees would offset the costs. The city could even establish a sliding scale, charging less for rudimentary structures. That way, even mom-and-pop restaurants would be able to afford a patch of street space. Those inspectors would have the power to impose fines on restaurants that clutter the sidewalks with hostess stands and server stations, ensuring that people with mobility issues always have a clear path.
We already regulate building facades and signs. If you live in a historic district, the Historical Commission tells you the kind of windows you can install. If you want to put a sign on your business, you need the city to approve the design. We should do no less for streeteries. There’s clearly a happy medium between a ring of Jersey barriers and the impenetrable shipping containers used by some restaurants.
Writing the rules takes time. New York City just launched an extensive public process to develop guidelines. It will involve consultations with various stakeholders and neighborhood groups, and won’t wrap up until fall 2022. Let’s do the same here, starting with the formation of a design committee that will help figure out how streeteries can remain the safe and magical retreats they were always meant to be.