Not too long ago in the pandemic, diners would have taken advantage of the occasional 60 degree February night to fill up the tablesoutside Paulie Gee’s in what was once prime parking in Hampden.
But as patrons take up the last of the indoor seating, owner Kelly Beckham stepped outside wondering how long this street-side setup will last — especially now that the city is contemplating an annual fee of $10 per square foot.
Under that fee structure, the average parking space given over to street dining would come out to about $2,000 a pop.
With Paulie Gee’s occupying 420 square feet, “that would be $4,200 a year,” said Beckham.
While Beckham understands the city’s need to make revenue off the parking spaces given over to outdoor parklets, he said the proposed fee would result in him taking down his fenced-in dining area.
“I’ll probably get back to what I’m allowed to do, which is to have tables on the sidewalk and just do away with the parklets,” he said.
This equation will no doubt be on the minds of many restaurateurs and bar owners when considering whether to keep their parklets, which they say were vital during the COVID lockdowns when indoor dining was prohibited and then later restricted.
“I’m willing to pay for it, but not that much,” said Scott Curlee, whose family has owned Duda’s Tavern since 1949. He was doing the same math when looking at his five in-street tables at the end of Bond Street in a relatively subdued part of Fells Point. He figured he was using about six parking spaces.
He concluded he’d have to pull in about $1,400 a month during the outdoor dining season. In colder months, the outdoor tables are going unused, even on unseasonably warm days.
“Like right now,” he said, looking out at the empty tables.
Other reactions range from “good riddance” to hopes that the city can come up with a way to keep this festive outdoor scene alive with design standards to tamper down the “anything goes” construction that has swept across the city.
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To Jasmine Brown, who was grabbing an order at Dooby’s in Mount Vernon, the parklets have added a little Europe to Baltimore. She said street dining offers a sense of safety — more people, more eyes, less crime.
“I always say there should be more outdoor seating in Baltimore,” she said.
From her expansive front window on N. Charles Street, Victoria Schassler, owner of Spirits of Mt. Vernon, has seen a festive atmosphere reemerge in one of the city’s most prominent commercial corridors. The strip has seen a number of vacancies — and that was before COVID.
“It was like the zombie apocalypse. Where did the people go?” she said. “Then the parklets came, and people came out again.”
As an emergency measure at the outset of the pandemic, Baltimore City allowed restaurants and bars to set up outdoor seating in parking spaces, free of charge, to cater to people’s desperate need to get out and cling to a semblance of normalcy.
“It was there to be social, to be human,” said Antonio Crespo, manager of Alexander’s Tavern, which has a wood frame parklet on Broadway with corrugated metal panels and a roof with hanging plants.
Baltimore City Department of Transportation considers table setups in what is normally road, and the public’s right of way, as a commercial curbside facility. The agency is now considering regulations and charging the $10 per square foot curbside commercial fee. The average parking space is 10 by 20 feet, and most parklets occupy several parking spaces across a building’s frontage.
Some see the new regulations and fees as a badly needed check on the collection of structures built without design standards.
Paul Dolaway, owner of MaGerk’s Pub & Grill in Federal Hill, wanted no part of the parklets.
“I’m against them,” said Dolaway, who has observed the street-side structures attracting non-customers — from those looking to extend the party to people experiencing homelessness seeking shelter. With the lack of uniformity, he said the majority of the parklets look rickety and randomly constructed.
“I would like all the parklets gone,” he said.
Simple economics could make Dolaway’s wish come true. Around the corner at Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, owner Dave Rather said that although parklets add volume in an industry with thin profit margins, he may have to remove his 36 outdoor seats.
“We will take ours down at that price,” he said.
DOT has held two 30-day public comment periods since the fall, with the most recent ending on Feb. 7. Once the measure approved by the Board of Estimates, the fee schedule would start July 1, said Liam Davis, legislative affairs manager for Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
“We’re kind of letting these businesses use the public right of way,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons why we think it’s very reasonable to charge a fee.”
Under the proposed rate, the city is actually losing money in some places where parking revenue averages out at $5.40 per day, Davis said.
Many of the comments DOT received were about aesthetics and the lack of uniformity in the city’s estimated 120 parklets, Davis said. Eighty-five percent of respondents supported the parklets. Most of the contentious comments, he said, revolve around Fells Point, which has the highest concentration of parklets.
A quick walk down Thames Street reveals a flank of structures pushing out into the wide Belgium block stone street that once allowed for trains and cars to coexist. The parklets run from plastic dining bubbles to wooden patio decking, an eclectic mix that, according to some critics, trounces on the historic feel of the block.
“We don’t want Bourbon Street,” said David Johnson, a Fells Point resident. “Officially Fells Point is a residential neighborhood with businesses. They are treating it like it’s a business district with some residents sprinkled around, but we are the ones who vote.”
Kate Simms, president of the Fell’s Point Residents Association, said people want consistency and enforcement, not just on the aesthetics but also in how the parklets are used, controlling after-hours drinking and the temptation to put up outdoor speakers.
David Gleason, president of The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point,acknowledges that parklets add vitality to the street, but he is calling for some guidelines to help businesses use materials and create structures that work with a neighborhood’s character.
“We would like to have a uniform look,” he said. “So, you don’t have a plastic tent some place or a gazebo at the next.”
Davis, of the DOT, said that the transportation department is focused not on aesthetics, but on safety — how parklets would work with traffic and making sure they are constructed temporarily to allow removal in case of construction. He noted that the regulations call for parklets to adhere to local design standards and will be reviewed on an annual basis.
Since the regulations are in the early stages, there really are no established local standards, Davis added. And while the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation oversees historic standards in some neighborhoods, the commission won’t have a role in reviewing parklet designs, since they are considered temporary unless they have footers or are permanently attached to a building, according to the commission’s executive director, Eric Holcomb.
Back at her wine store in Mount Vernon, Schassler is concerned that charging a fee is shortsighted and may stifle the badly needed charge for Baltimore’s nightlife.
“The city’s got to recognize that we need this for survival,” she said. “And, you know, there are other ways to go about gaining additional tax revenue than off the backs of small businesses that are barely able to survive.”