Vancouver city councillor proposes removing red tape for restaurant patios

Apr 29 2020, 5:35 pm

The practice of expanding restaurant dining spaces into outdoor areas is increasingly being billed as a potential tool to help struggling restaurants safely operate during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery period.

And one Vancouver city councillor wants to set the framework as soon as possible so that restaurants can hit the ground running with these operational changes once dining restrictions are lifted, which could happen as early as later this spring.

In her motion to be deliberated next month, city councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung wants to remove the red tape and expedite the process associated with applying for a patio permit.

“The City has a key role to play in supporting economic recovery. Speed flexibility and nimbleness in permitting and business support services will be instrumental to helping businesses get back up and running and survive,” she wrote.

Physical distancing measures are anticipated to be required when restaurants are allowed to reopen, but this would severely limit the capacity of restaurants.

By opening up capacity to outdoor areas, such as patios, some of the lost seat capacity due to physical distancing could be recovered.

Some restaurants have been able to continue some of their operations through takeout and delivery service, but this severely limits the customer base.

“Patio season is a critical revenue generator for restaurants and upon us now. Expedited patio permitting must be turnkey when restaurants are able to reopen to table type service,” wrote Kirby-Yung.

“An outcome of COVID-19 will likely be the need for some continued physical distancing processes in businesses. Customers will also be cautious about being in close quarters to others.”

She adds that restaurant operators could be given the opportunity to be innovative with their patios, redefining the concept such as pop-up standing patios for quick service type offerings. Existing patio sizes could be expanded to allow physical distancing and more open-air dining.

As well, she suggests streets or laneway spaces could be used, as long as these roads do not impede on transit buses, emergency and service vehicles, and general traffic.

Currently, patio permitting can be a time consuming and costly process, requiring a combination of licensing, development permits, and operational permits. It is far from being a straight forward and affordable option, especially for small businesses.

Even for a small sidewalk patio permit, there is a minimum annual permit fee of $382.26 for three tables and six chairs, and an additional unit fee of $127.42 for each additional table with two chairs. These permits are valid for a one-year period beginning May 1.

For large sidewalk patios, there is a summer season rate — April 1 to October 31 — of $88.25 per sq. metre for patios in downtown and $62.54 per sq. metre for patios outside of downtown. The winter season rate — November 1 to March 31 — is $62.81 per sq. metre in downtown and $44.61 per sq. metre outside of downtown.

Large patios that straddle private property and city property require both a time-intensive and costly development permit and a sidewalk patio permit. Additional permission from staff in the planning department is required if the restaurant or cafe is located in Yaletown, Gastown, or Chinatown.

There are also varying permit application fees and applicable GST.

If approved by city council, city staff will prepare and report back on more flexible patio types and size options, including the consideration for pre-detailed designs and formats, and expedited permitting for applications and renewals.

The restaurant industry is amongst the hardest hit as a result of COVID-19 health safety restrictions.

As of the end of March, over 120,000 people lost their job in the food service sector in BC, and many employers have indicated they are unsure if they will be able to reopen when restrictions lift. Within Vancouver, restaurants were already facing tough operational challenges prior to the pandemic.