Why there will be a lot more outdoor dining in RVA this summer

An outdoor dining ordinance is making restaurants and customers even more excited about the warmer weather.

For two years the owners of Bistro 27, William Wright and Carlos Silva, wanted a 12-seat patio outside of their Broad Street restaurant. The only thing keeping them from one was City approval.

“It was a zoo,” Wright said about the seemingly never-ending, circuitous process to get the legal go-ahead. “It was this bureaucracy.” He has a binder full of forms and paperwork from the past two years to prove it.

But Wright kept at it because he believed then–as he does now–that sidewalk patios lure diners to restaurants. “We live in a southern town, and Richmonders love their outdoor seating,” he said. “They want to have that option of eating outside.”

Last November, City Council passed an ordinance (PDF) that makes it much easier for restaurants like Bistro 27 to offer its customers al fresco dining.

Mark Olinger, the City’s Director of the Department of Planning & Development Review, said, “Bistro 27 [is] kind of the poster child” for the new ordinance. He’d recently worked with the restaurant owners and knew of their two-year-long frustrations with the application process. He didn’t blame them. “The idea of going through encroachment is a daunting project.”

He’s referring to outdoor dining encroachment, what the City calls a restaurant fashioning an eating area on a public sidewalk. Until late last year, restaurants had to apply for permits to do so, typically to install permanent enclosures (like the short barriers outside The Republic and The Savory Grain).

Olinger said the encroachment process is “ultimately reviewed by the Planning Commission, Urban Design Committee, and City Council” and can take between eight months to a year to complete, assuming everything goes as planned. “It’s more involved because [restaurants] are fundamentally taking over a portion of the right-of-way” on sidewalks, Olinger said. It’s also an expensive proposition for businesses–the application fee alone is $1,000.

Shortly after Olinger became Director of Department of Planning & Development Review–around the time that Bistro 27 owners began their protracted process with the City–he overheard Mayor Jones lauding the outdoor cafés and sidewalk patios he saw in other cities. The Mayor felt they added vibrancy to city streets and wanted that vibrancy here in Richmond.

So Olinger and other officials began considering how a new ordinance might meet existing City and ABC requirements, as well as provide restaurants an easier way of occupying sidewalks. In time, what they came up with is the sidewalk café permit, passed last November by City Council.

Whereas encroachment permits are for restaurants that add permanent fixtures to public sidewalks, Olinger said the new ordinance pertains to café sections with no fixed attachment to a sidewalk. This means that permitted restaurants can place tables, chairs, and enclosures1 on the sidewalk anytime between 7:00 AM – 12:00 AM, provided that they’re removed beyond that window of time. The application fee for sidewalk café permits (PDF) is less than encroachment permits: $150 application fee with an optional $100 annual renewal.

Olinger said the application process has been streamlined too. Zoning staff takes measurements soon after applications are made to ensure that pedestrians have at least five feet of space on the sidewalk. Once Public Works inspects the site and ABC approves it, the restaurant gets the OK. The process should take less than a month from start to finish, perhaps as quick as 10 days.

William Wright of Bistro 27 said the process to obtain an outdoor patio permit is no longer the zoo it once was. “It was like the easiest thing,” he said about the restaurant’s recent permit application. There’s also no need for a binder to hold all the paperwork. “The application is one page.”

Pasture was the first restaurant to take advantage of the new ordinance, opening its outdoor patio last week. Wright said Bistro 27 will launch its own sidewalk patio on May 20th.2


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  1. Required for businesses that serve alcohol. Restaurants that don’t serve alcohol don’t need an enclosure. 
  2. The Camel is also reported to have submitted an application. 

photo by MissMessie

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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