By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Earlier this month, the City of Alexandria made permanent the parklet system that was installed during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to keep businesses afloat when people could not dine inside restaurants. Now that the system is here for good, those restaurants are adjusting to the changes.
Established in 2020, the temporary policy allowed some eateries to create outdoor dining for the first time, while others expanded their current capacity. After shifting to a permanent model, the city began charging fees for these parklets – which are defined as an extension of a sidewalk into a city parking lane to be used for a business’ extra space, such as outdoor dining.
City Council approved a fee structure for the program in March, but pushed back the start date for the fees to Oct. 1 instead of July 1, as initially proposed.
By the end of 2021, there were 37 parklets established by businesses. Since starting the permanent parklet program earlier this month, 27 permits have been issued so far.
In order to receive an annual “Right of Way – Parklet Permit,” businesses must fill out an application. They first meet with Max Devilliers, an urban planner with the Transportation and Environmental Services, to go over all the parklet requirements and outdoor dining guidelines. Then, the businesses must notify neighbors and the presiding civic association, and obtain a letter of support from the businesses in front of the proposed parklet. Finally, they apply for the permit, which is then reviewed by T&ES and the Department of Planning and Zoning.
Several eateries have found the shift in regulations confusing and somewhat troublesome. For example, Stacey Wharam, owner of Fontaine Caffe and Creperie, contended that the required letter of support in the city’s regulations was too vague.
“There was a caveat that said you had to get a letter of support from neighbors. It didn’t expand on that, it just said ‘letter of support.’ That’s all it says,” Wharam said. “I think it’s wrong for the city to put in a rule like ‘letter of support’ with no conditions.”
Specifically, the city’s regulations state that “if the parklet is at all located in front of any properties not occupied by the applicant, letters of support from the businesses, residents, and/or property owners of said building(s) are required.”
Wharam subsequently obtained letters of support from neighboring businesses such as Alexandria & Company and the Seeding Collective, both located directly next to her business. She also asked for a letter from the Alexandrian Hotel, which denied the request.
According to Wharam and Devilliers, the reason was due to the fact that the current occupant Long & Foster is moving out at the end of December. As a result, the hotel desires to make the space as appealing as possible for future tenants. The Alexandrian did not return the Times’ requests for comment.
According to Devilliers, the city’s rules indicate that if a parklet extends beyond the frontage of the business’ property, that business must obtain permission from the property on which it encroaches.
Fontaine, for example, is located at 117 S. Royal St. Its parklets extended past that, facing north – near the Alexandrian Hotel’s property. Although no property has jurisdiction over the spaces directly in front of it, Devilliers said the city allows businesses to express their comfortability with other businesses’ parklets operating near their property.
“Because of how parklets [can] distract customers … we want to give everyone the opportunity to have a say in whether they’re okay with these parklets being in front of their business, because it could affect them negatively,” Devilliers said.
Therefore, if one business wants to operate a parklet in front of another’s business, the city requires a letter of support from the business it would be affecting.
Yet Wharam argued that the parklet was not in front of the Alexandrian but to the side, facing a brick wall, and would not affect the hotel whatsoever.
“I am forced to cut my outdoor dining in half, all for someone I don’t even impact,” Wharam said. “Whereas, next door to me, [the companies] who gave a letter of support – I could see them saying, ‘People can’t park, it’s hurting my business,’ and that’s a valid reason. I’m impacting your business if that’s the case. But here, I don’t affect their parking, I don’t affect their restaurant, and I don’t affect entering and exiting their hotel. I impact them zero.”
The loss of two parklets has forced Wharam to relegate the furniture she purchased for the space to a storage unit. The two parklets in question annually generate $75,000 in revenue and $19,000 in tips, Wharam said, and the reduction will “most certainly necessitate the reduction in staff hours and perhaps a reduction in staff.”
Still, Devilliers said the parklet impinges on the Alexandrian’s property and thus requires a letter of support. He emphasized that Fontaine is permitted to operate parklets, but they can only be in front of the businesses that have expressed support.
“The Alexandrian, rightfully so, wants to make the space as attractive to a potential tenant as possible. So they don’t want to preclude that by allowing this parklet to be there now, and then have potential tenants come in and say, ‘Oh, but this outdoor seating right there,’” Devilliers said.
Katye North, division chief of mobility services, clarified that because Wharam did not receive a letter of support from the Alexandrian – even if she did from other businesses – she is unable to operate a parklet there.
“She did not get a letter of support from the business she wanted to go in front of. She got a lot of support from the neighbors. I know she talked with some of the other businesses and just got general support for having a parklet on the block itself, but for the space in front of the hotel, she was not able to get a letter,” North said.
According to North, many businesses have expressed support for the changes to the permanent program, such as the removal of tents and formalizing of the spaces.
“I think the permanent program has helped us address a lot of the things that people didn’t like about the temporary program,” North said.
The businesses that opted to move forward will pay different amounts based on where they’re located. The fee structure charges parklets open to the public at all times $15 per foot, parklets used by a commercial business within King Street $150 per linear foot, parklets within an equity emphasis area, such as Arlandria, $50 per linear foot and all other areas $100 per linear foot.
According to Wharam, much of her frustration comes from the city allowing this program for more than two years, and then effectively allowing one business to determine the fate of another’s parklets without what she considers valid reason.
“I think there needs to be some rules attached to it, something that says, ‘You’re taking up three valid parking spaces I need and I’m losing business,’” Wharam said. “Without that, you’re giving an extreme amount of power to certain individuals that have no right to have that power over you.”
Despite some hiccups, Devilliers said the overall shift to permanent parklets has been going smoothly.
“The businesses that have decided to move forward despite all the requirements, have been cooperative and we have a good working relationship with all of them. We talk to them pretty much every day,” Devilliers said.