The politics of Ottawa patios

Peter Kovessy
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Some restaurant owners say they’ll be forced to close their outdoor offerings next year

Months after the city spent thousands of dollars widening the sidewalks along Preston Street to encourage more street-level activity, some business owners say high municipal fees means they can’t afford to open their patios.

Stoneface Dolly’s owner Bob Russell says he won’t be able to afford to open his Preston Street patio next year unless the city reduces its fees. (Photo by Etienne Ranger)

Stoneface Dolly’s owner Bob Russell says he pays about $5,000 to the city annually for his 20-square-metre patio at the corner of Preston and Beech streets.

Holding about a dozen seats, the patio is bordered by a custom-built wrought iron fence and flowers paid for by Mr. Russell.

Because of the ongoing construction on Preston Street, the city gave businesses such as Stoneface Dolly’s a break on their encroachment fees.

But Mr. Russell says he won’t open his patio if he has to pay the full fees next year.

“I will not lose money … on a patio,” he says.

“(The city) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars decorating the street, and it does look good. We should all be part of that, but I can’t afford it.”

He says his patio does not bring in any extra business, a point that the head of the local business improvement area is trying to emphasize to the city.

While nice weather may attract new patrons to an outdoor patio for a pint, Lori Mellor, the executive director of the Preston Street BIA, says patios simply bring restaurant customers, who would have dined there regardless, outside.

She also notes that on top of the municipal encroachment fees, restaurants must pay for outdoor furniture, computers, umbrellas, maintenance and storage to run a patio.

Ms. Mellor raised the patio fee issue on behalf of Ottawa’s business improvement areas at a recent meeting of the city’s business advisory committee.

She says there is confusion about different rates charged by the city, depending on whether the encroachment is on an improved stretch of city property – such as a paved sidewalk, shoulder or road – or on an unimproved boulevard that may require the business owner to build a platform.

But Ms. Mellor says her main concern is that rates keep climbing.

“They just keep adding a certain percentage each year until it gets to a certain point where it is not feasible any longer,” says Ms. Mellor.

She is currently speaking to individual business owners and other BIAs to collect hard numbers on how many restaurants and cafes are choosing not to open patios because of the municipal fees so she can make her case at city hall.

The councillor for the area, Diane Holmes, estimates there are more than 10 businesses on Preston alone that would likely open a patio if fees were more reasonable.

She’s asked city staff to look at charging all patio owners the lower of the two encroachment fees, so restaurants don't have to pay the same rate as construction companies using roadways to store supplies.

If the issue can't be resolved with city staff, Coun. Holmes says she will likely take it to the city’s transportation committee.

She notes the city recently approved a new type of temporary encroachment on sidewalks for cafes and restaurants with one or two small tables. Those businesses must apply for a $150 permit from the city.

However, Coun. Holmes acknowledges it is currently difficult for restaurants to make enough money on their patios to cover the fees.

“The reason we are widening the sidewalks on many of our newly reconstructed roads is so we can use sidewalks for more patios. They enliven the street, add colour and excitement and make the street safer,” she says.

“Patios are what we want.”



Pricey patios?

First-time review: Up 7.1% from $253 in 2007 to $271 in 2010.

Permit processing fee: Up 6.2% from $46.60 in 2007 to $49.50 in 2010.

Sidewalk rental, per square metre, per day: Up 7.7% from $1.17 in 2007 to $1.26 in 2010.

Boulevard rental, per square metre, per day: Up 5.9% from $0.51 in 2007 to $0.54 in 2010.






Organizations: Preston Street BIA

Geographic location: Preston Street, Ottawa

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