Cardella: Save Our Streeteries

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During the pandemic, we’ve gotten a taste of what true entrepreneurship can accomplish in Philadelphia. The growth of a number of creative outdoor streeteries magically saved the restaurant industry. And now in true Philadelphia style, some politicians are in danger of screwing with success.

The bill that authorizes the building of the outdoor dining structures is set to expire by the end of the year. You would think that a measure that rescued an important part of the city’s economy would be universally accepted. You would think wrong. This is Philly, where some folks spend all their time griping. The City of Brotherly Malcontents.

The bill introduced by Councilman Allan Domb would make the streeteries permanent within certain guidelines intended to address safety and street access. Council President Darrell Clarke’s bill would grant a six-month extension to come up with a public process to vet the structures. Domb says he’s open to suggestions. Claims that he can see both bills being passed by Council. At first glance, you might think the bills are complementary, not competing. I’m not so sure.

In this city, it’s often what’s NOT being discussed that is really important. In this case, it’s something called “councilmanic prerogative.” Clarke’s bill appears to preserve the unofficial right of each Council member to approve what happens in his or her district. Domb’s bill appears to transfer that power, in the case of streeteries, to the mayor. My money is on Council retaining its prerogative because politicians don’t normally give up power. Not in Philly. Not anywhere.

My money is also on “temporary” winning out over “permanent.” Permanent is so permanent, you know. Clarke says his temporary extension (think June 30) would allow Council to call witnesses and experts to testify about the accessibility of streeteries to the disabled and the impact of the loss of bike lanes and parking places. Anyone think that come June 30, another extension might be needed to allow for all the complaints to be aired? Raise your hand. Deliberations about bike lanes and parking spots in this city can fill a lifetime.  But, the vagaries of the economy don’t allow for much delay beyond extended hearings.

A business can only operate at a profit if it can reasonably predict the future. Let’s face it. The cold weather is already here. Business won’t begin booming again at the outdoor streeteries until next spring. By that time, the six-month extension will have almost expired.

An architectural writer for the INQUIRER has endorsed a temporary extension. She expresses the need for more detail in Domb’s bill. Here’s what’s required of streeteries in that bill:

Leave 6 feet of space on the sidewalk in order for people to pass

Have a barrier to keep diners safe from traffic

Be located 10 feet or more from a crosswalk or pedestrian street crossing curb cut

Be ramp accessible

Not include mobile advertisements

Cannot use space now designated for bike lanes or travel lanes

Would be capped at the number of indoor dining seats in a restaurant

Allowed to operate Sunday to Thursday between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., and 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Domb is quoted as saying that making streeteries a permanent part of the city dining scene would enhance the city in a “new and more exciting” way. My wife and I can attest that Domb is not tossing out hyperbole. The streeteries on 18th Street or on the strip on 13th Street between Chestnut and Walnut are perfect examples of what Domb is talking about. The city around those areas has come alive with excitement, especially on weekend nights. The passing parade of humanity is like an urban version of the boardwalk at the shore. Dining across from the Academy of Music, you feel as if you’re part of the adventure of opening night as the concert or theater crowd mills about. You feel the buzz of a new and different Philadelphia dining experience. Is it perfect? No. Can it be improved? Yes.

While being overall in favor of making the streeteries permanent, the Inquirer columnist claims that Domb’s bill fails to address “many crucial issues” ranging from safety protocols to sight lines. She also believes that the $200 charge restaurant owners would be required to pay for the privilege of operating on public streets is too low. She hints that Clarke views the streeteries more as “nuisances” than economic and social improvement. In addition, the article suggests that because the Planning Commission is involved, a successful compromise is unlikely. The same planning commission that rejected Domb’s bill in October, calling it “flawed.”

Thus, the danger signs that what should be a win-win proposition for Philadelphia may yet become another contentious political football. The more delay, the more time for the skeptics and malcontents to mount their opposition. Domb’s bill is not “flawed” so much as incomplete. You want to make the city’s streeteries better, I’m with you. But if the six-month delay is just a way to kill the measure, count me out.