DC Council to Consider Measure on Tuesday to Close Streets for Outdoor Dining – An Analysis and Recommendations

Image by Mr.TinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

[Edited to fix the incorrect members who introduced bill]
5/18 Update: Mayor Bowser’s office has convinced Chairman Mendelson to remove this from the bill and will consider it in 3 weeks:  “There was objection to inclusion of it at this time from several sources, including the Executive, and it was noted that the ReOpenDC Advisory Committee and ABRA are working on this issue and will have their recommendations later this month. See update here:] 

After publishing my open letter to Mayor Bowser and DC Council on Monday, I received tons of support and appeared on the local news in particular over the suggestion to open up outdoor spaces for dining to help keep restaurants/bars viable. Council member Kenyan McDuffie appeared soon after me on the same program to express his support for the idea (though in all fairness, it’s clear that this idea had some supporters already). Today, the DC Council circulated an emergency bill with language drafted by Charles Allen and Mary Cheh to facilitate this. I think the bill is a great start and in ways it’s more ambitious than I expected, but it has a few shortfalls. I’ll first describe exactly what this bill does and my suggestions for improvements. WBJ has another more succinct analysis here.

WHAT CURRENT LANGUAGE DOES

Under the proposed language, the following entities can apply for a free Outdoor Dining Expansion permit from DDOT to close streets/alley to vehicle traffic for up to one year after the public health emergency has ended:

  1. Business Improvement District (BID) OR
  2. Main Street Program OR
  3. Restaurant/bar with a liquor license that already has a sidewalk cafe (doesn’t have to be in a BID or Main Street Program) AND is required by Mayor to operate at a reduced capacity due to the public health emergency

For BIDs and Main Streets (more below on what these are) can seek closure for any street in their jurisdiction, and a restaurant/bar seeking it for itself can request closure anywhere on their block, not just the space in front. The application must list the restaurants/bars that will take advantage (and those restaurants/bars must already have a sidewalk cafe and operating at a reduced capacity).

DDOT is required to approve an Outdoor Dining Expansion permit and close the street to motor vehicle traffic that complies with application requirements if these conditions are met:

  1. The local ANC has sent a letter of support.
  2. Closure of public space will not cause significant pubic safety concerns.

DDOT has 30 days from receipt of permit application to approve application.

What are the 11 BID’s in DC?

Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Golden Triangle (Farragut area), Downtown (includes Chinatown/PQ), NoMa, Capitol Hill, Capitol Riverfront (Navy Yard), Southwest, Anacostia

Credit: DC BID Council (http://www.dcbidcouncil.org/map/)

What are the Main Street Programs? (bolded spaces with significant numbers restaurant/bars)

Bladensburg Road, Cleveland Park,  Congress Heights, District Bridges (Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights) Glover Park, H Street, Logan Circle, Lower Georgia (Petworth, Pleasant Plains, and Park View), Minnesota Avenue, North Capitol (Bloomingdale), Rhode Island Ave. (Woodridge), Shaw, Tenleytown, The Parks (Riggs and Manor Park), Uptown (Brightwood Park, north Columbia Heights, Upper Georgia (Brightwood and north) , U Street, Van Ness, Ward 7, Woodley Park

Barracks Row, Eastern Market, Georgetown, Dupont also have Main Street Programs but appear to already have BIDs covering the space.

What’s not covered by BID or Main Street that Has At least Some of Bars/Restaurants?

Ivy City, Brookland, Palisades. Maybe some random blocks.

BARRED IN DC ANALYSIS

I think this language is a great start, and I’m very heartened that they are being proactive about this, but there are some issues lacking that I would encourage DC Council to address ASAP between now and Tuesday:

  1. Eliminate requirement of ANC “letter of support” except for bars/restaurants that are applying separately from (or are outside of) a BID/Main Street. If a BID or Main Street has expressed support AND DDOT feels that this does not cause pubic safety issues, this should be sufficient at least to initially approve the license. BIDs and Main Streets, although imperfect, are our best system of determining quickly the best option for the business in the neighborhood. Because ANCs do have a legal and important role in DC’s government, ANC’s role with BID/Main Street applications should be limited to proposing modifications to closed streets after approval (or during the submission process) if issues arise or if residents/businesses need mitigation. In serious issues they can submit a letter of opposition. ANCs only meet monthly usually and requiring a letter of support just unnecessarily extends this issue when the agency with the most important role, DDOT, can just make this call. Otherwise, it will be likely until mid July until any restaurants/bars can take advantage, taking away the key month of June which still has mostly non-heat stroke inducing outdoor weather.
  2. Eliminate requirement that business have a liquor license.Although most sit-down restaurants in DC have liquor licenses, there are plenty of eateries that don’t which don’t that could benefit from this. I see no reason to limit this and allow eateries (or even a retail business if it makes sense to put inventory out there) the ability to serve its customers safely w/ less fear and reduction of harm to employees.
  3. Eliminate requirement that a restaurant/bar already have a sidewalk cafe endorsement to take advantage. There are bars/restaurants all across the city (see H Street) who have no ability to have a sidewalk cafe because of sidewalk clearance. Many of these bars/restaurants in fact are permitted to have summer garden’s on private space which blur the lines and have successfully dealt with the issues of having outdoor dining/drinking space. The way the text is worded-these restaurants/bars would not have the ability to have any or additional outdoor space. If the city feels that this is unfair to those restaurants/bars who already have sidewalk cafes-perhaps a nominal fee should be charged to put them on equal footing with those with endorsements already.
  4. Eliminate requirement that Mayor has reduced capacity. It’s not a given that the Mayor will reduce indoor capacity by a fixed percentage, and if so, it’s unlikely that the reduction will last for an extended period of time. In the meantime it is almost guaranteed that droves of patrons will stay away from indoor spaces even (or because of) if capacity is restored to normal. It should be sufficient that the public health emergency has been declared. Given that is highly likely that this emergency will continue until next year, this issue can be mitigated a bit by shortening the 1 year post-emergency period to 6 or 9 months. Restaurants/bars should be able to apply immediately even before end of stay-at-order.
  5. Reduce 30 day application review period to 5 or 10 days. TODAY-DDOT. should start preliminary reviewing every block in a BID and every block in a Main Street to see which blocks would be safe or not for closure or partial closure. DDOT personnel likely already know which blocks will work and which will not and because most of these streets are not back streets, this should not be that obscure of a task. If the ANC is required to submit a letter of support (and I don’t recommend), this means it could be until mid-late July before this occurs. I think it’s entirely reasonable to require DDOT approval but let’s get this done as quickly and safely as possible.
  6. Explicitly allow applications to seek partial traffic closures. Currently the language makes it seem that DDOT will close entire street block 24/7. This may not make sense (particularly when weekday traffic returns in some fashion and deliveries are made on weekdays)-lanes can be closed only in evenings or on weekends to mitigate impact to businesses on the block. In some instances only one side or even one lane needs to be closed (e.g., to satisfy people who love parking, you could push out parking lane into travel lane and make parking spots dining spots. In fact, one restaurant with the support of their BID has already suggested closing one side of one street on weekends only.
  7. Explicitly Facilitate Use of Public Space Not Used by Vehicles or Pedestrians. I found that this legislation was more ambitious than expected as it went straight to closing streets. I think that is awesome and will be a huge help but in the event DDOT or the neighboring businesses do not feel that is appropriate, the law should explicitly allow DDOT to approve restaurants/bars to use other public space not currently necessary for pedestrians or moving vehicle traffic. That is, there are often neighboring daytime or non-eatery businesses on a block who would be happy to rent or lend out their outdoor sidewalk space for dining/drinking use during other hours. In addition, in some blocks with low traffic or speed streets, it may be safe to replace the parking spaces on the block with outdoor dining/drinking spaces. Although this already may be permitted by DDOT policy, but this seems to be low hanging fruit that can be included in here to expeditiously approved.
  8. [ADDED] Make clear that this provision explicitly supersedes any more restrictive Settlement Agreements. Almost no bar/restaurant in the city with a settlement agreement (most of them?) would technically not be allowed to do this so just to avoid any issues, edit that accordingly.

1 thought on “DC Council to Consider Measure on Tuesday to Close Streets for Outdoor Dining – An Analysis and Recommendations

  1. Pingback: Legislation to Permit Outdoor Dining Expansion into DC Streets and Other Public Space Tabled, For Now | Barred in DC

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