On-street dining, initially introduced as a temporary outdoor seating option for restaurants and bars during the COVID-19 pandemic, could become a more permanent part of the dining landscape in City of Atlanta if a new ordinance is passed.
Last year, in order to help restaurants and bars create safer, socially distanced dining areas, the city passed a pilot ordinance allowing food and drink establishments to transform a maximum of two on-street parking spaces into outdoor seating through the end of 2021. Now, after seeing the initial interest in the temporary on-street dining permit and receiving feedback from business owners who want to operate their street dining sections — often called parklets — long term, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is working on a new ordinance to extend the availability of on-street dining, and possibly make it a permanent option for city restaurants and bars in the future.
Though DCP is still working out the details of the ordinance, the department intends to extend the availability of on-street dining permits to restaurants and bars at least through the end of 2022 and continue to waive permit and application fees, according to Ben Kamber, DCP’s project manager of neighborhood economic development for the Office of Housing and Community Development.
“The plan at that time was always, let’s watch it for a year, let’s learn from it, figure out ways to improve it and see if this is something we could make a more permanent fixture for Atlanta,” says Joshua Humphries, the director of Office of Housing and Community Development.
Representatives for DCP could not tell Eater whether this new on-street dining ordinance includes a sunset provision requiring renewal of the permit beyond the end of next year or if it will finally make dining parklets permanent in Atlanta. But Humphries says he’s not anticipating any fundamental changes to the proposed city legislation, set to be introduced within the next two to three months to the Atlanta City Council. Given the unanimous support the initial ordinance received from the council in 2020, Humphries expects this new ordinance to pass smoothly by the end of 2021.
To help businesses establish parklets earlier in 2021, DCP’s Placemaking Program implemented a one-time funding project to provide parklet materials, installation, and permit assistance at no cost to businesses that applied through the program in the spring. The pilot initiative had funding for 20 parklets, each costing between $10,000 to $12,000, and the department awarded 16 to restaurants, bars, and coffee shops across Atlanta, including to Bon Ton, Joystick Gamebar, and Howell Mill coffee shop Prevail Union. The leftover money went toward aesthetic improvements for existing parklets, or “branded pieces” covering the jersey barriers and “printed material guiding users” to take a DCP survey.
While DCP owns those parklet materials, if the new legislation passes, it would continue to loan the parklets to current recipients through 2022 and use the next year to see if these businesses start to invest more into their parklets to make the outdoor seating more permanent. The goal is to eventually figure out how to transition those materials to the actual business owners.
“We are looking at options to have the businesses have more ownership of the materials, but at this point, we’re still kind of exploring what that would look like — if we’re going to retain ownership of them longer term or if that would be transitioned over,” says Vanessa Lira, assistant director of the Public Space Studio in DCP’s Office of Design.
For Atlanta restaurants and bars currently seeking to install parklets outside of the initial, city-funded Placemaking Program recipients, owners must obtain the temporary on-street dining permit and pay for and build the seating themselves. The proposed ordinance extension doesn’t extend city assistance, just outdoor dining as an option for food and drink businesses and the parklet building requirements to follow.
Jonathan Pascual, owner of Taproom Coffee in the Kirkwood neighborhood, has already made the parklet he received through the Placemaking Program his own. Greenery and bright blue umbrellas add color to the parklet, making it an “official outdoor seating area for [the] coffee shop rather than it being an afterthought.”
Because parklets jut out into the street, the seating catches people’s attention, something that can help attract customers, Pascual says. Though the shop lost a couple of parallel parking spaces for quickly picking up coffee, Pascual hasn’t received any complaints about the loss of parking. There are still spots in front of adjacent stores, too.
Pascual isn’t sure if the parklet directly impacted sales, but says the shop did experience more foot traffic and positive customer feedback regarding the new outdoor seating area, which includes three two-seater tables. Since the parklet provided a more visually defined outdoor seating area, Taproom decided to double its outdoor seating from a previous five tables and 10 seats on the sidewalk to 10 tables and 20 seats altogether.
Investing in something new felt like progress, Pascual adds, which boosted the morale of his team during the ongoing pandemic.
Parnass Savang, chef and co-owner of Talat Market in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood, had a similar experience.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Savang says of the parklet, which the restaurant has had for several months now. “During COVID, we were trying to turn every rock over and trying to see everything, every possibility, all the possibilities.”
Though he wished the parklet could’ve been built out sooner in the pandemic, when DCP did come through, the seating added a whole serviceable area to Talat Market and helped bring in more sales. Savang and business partner chef Rod Lassiter just recently opened Talat Market for indoor dining for the first time since the restaurant opened in April 2020. The covered porch seats 18. The parklet adds another 16 outdoor seats to the restaurant. During the months-long dining room closure, the parklet allowed Talat Market staff to serve people outside of a takeout setting.
“It really not only financially brought us up, it brought our morale up. It made us hopeful,” says Savang.
Because the parklet is a temporary dining option right now, Savang doesn’t put much effort into it. But if it becomes more permanent, he’d invest in enhancements like fans, heaters, and lights.
“It’s really fun because it’s on the street, and a lot of Thai food that I experienced that I really enjoyed … the dining section was on the street and people were cooking on the street,” Savang says. “It’s just another vibe that would add to the experience of eating at Talat.”
Pascual says it depends on how much he’d have to invest in the parklet for Taproom long term, from fees and upkeep to any potential investment made to keep the parklet materials loaned by DCP down the line. Because each ticket at the coffee shop is typically lower than a restaurant or bar, sales are also lower comparatively, which means the overall cost of on-street dining could hit Taproom disproportionately harder.
“If it’s a one-time fee annually, okay. I might be able to swing that and work it into an annual budget,” Pascual says. “But if it is all the materials of the barriers and the flooring and everything, it might price me out.”
Eater plans to follow the progress of this new on-street dining ordinance and its impact on restaurants throughout City of Atlanta over the next year.