Ottawa patios adapt to pre-pandemic norms, even as experts argue for permanent changes

The Grand Pizzeria

At the height of social distancing and other restrictions related to the pandemic, many Canadian cities rolled out temporary patio policies that loosened rules and waived fees for bars and restaurants looking to seat customers outdoors.

These programs brought a glimmer of hope — and revenue — to businesses that had been forced to shut their doors.

In Ottawa, the Patio Innovation Program was approved by the city in 2020, 2021 and 2022 and included a new retail vending program, streamlined permit applications and, most notably, the temporary waiving of monthly patio fees.

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Now, most of these amendments have been rolled back and a fee structure introduced that slowly moves back to full patio fees. The phased-in approach includes a 50-per-cent rate for this year’s summer and winter patio seasons, said Mark Young, program manager of public realm and urban design with the City of Ottawa.

“The council-approved decision … is intended to mitigate growing costs to businesses and continued economic instability, particularly in the downtown core,” Young said. 

Despite confusion being experienced in other cities as a result of a post-pandemic patchwork of regulations and fees, Ottawa businesses are adapting well.

Among them is Blue Cactus Bar and Grill on the ByWard Market Square, where owner Bob Firestone says he has had a smooth transition away from pandemic regulations, in part because some of the changes made are still in place.

During the pandemic, Blue Cactus was able to extend its patio into the street, adding more room for socially distanced tables. Now, the larger patio space is here to stay and the street has been closed to cars, creating a pedestrian-only block.

“It’s made our street a whole lot better and it’s been great,” said Firestone. “It’s been excellent to get back to it with no truckers or storms or hurricanes or raining frogs. Ottawa clamours for patios.”

David Mangano, co-owner of The Grand Pizzeria and Bar on George Street, says his 170-seat patio is thriving this summer, but admits the fees for the outdoor space are high.

“It was open season during the pandemic, with patios taking up sidewalks, parking spaces,” he said. “The city just said go ahead and had a really liberal attitude and understandably so.

“During lockdowns, that was the only area we could conduct business and we had to be distanced, so we didn’t have the sales we usually would.”

The Grand usually expects to pay about $20,000 per summer for the outdoor patio space, Mangano said, and even though it will be 50 per cent less this summer, the expenses still add up. Setting up awnings and paying storage fees also costs about $20,000, while $6,000 is spent on hanging flower baskets, Mangano said. He estimates between $30,000 and $40,000 in total is spent on decorating and maintaining the patio each season. 

After a few busy weekends, The Grand covers these expenses, he said, but the pause on patio fees during the pandemic years was “very helpful.”

“We are taking up space and should pay for that, it’s understood, but we’re also beautifying communities, creating jobs,” he said. “It’s a big investment just to get going, with the fees on top of that it gets pretty pricey.”

Many experts say patios need better across-the-board standardization for businesses still trying to make up for lost sales.

“It was a thing that became an obvious no-brainer for better streets and better neighbourhoods and better cities,” said city planning consultant Brent Toderian, the former chief planner for Vancouver. “So it’s remarkable how bad a job we’ve done.”

“The pandemic was a bit of a forced pilot program,” said James DiPaolo, a senior associate at Urban Strategies. “Cities were looking at creative ways to adapt and they were forced to do it on a much faster timetable than they’re used to.”

Three years later, the transition to the new normal has some municipalities making temporary changes permanent while others, like the City of Ottawa, roll them back.

Many businesses in Toronto are seeing patio permits that were approved during the pandemic now denied, or are facing delays in getting permits even as summer rolls forward, said Tracy Macgregor, vice-president of Ontario for Restaurants Canada.

“That’s where the frustration is coming in, because they can’t hit the ground running with these patios,” she said.

“When you walk around Montreal, you see a lot more (patios). So that certainly suggests that their system is more effective,” Toderian said. “It’s part of their general attitude towards the public realm, which is better than any other city in North America.”

Both Calgary and Edmonton appear to have clear and helpful guidelines for their patios, said DiPaolo, helping businesses figure out what their patio should look like instead of “starting from scratch in every case.”

In Calgary, the city is again waiving fees for patio permits this year. In 2022, it made its extended patio program permanent, with permits valid for three years, according to the city website.

Along 17th Avenue, a popular stretch of bars and restaurants, a local business group decided to pitch in to streamline patio season.

The 17th Ave Business Improvement Area last year invested in building an extended boardwalk that runs alongside the sidewalks, explained executive director Tulene Steistol. Seating is set up on the sidewalks in front of businesses, while pedestrians walk on the boardwalk without having to watch for servers and patrons crossing between the restaurant and the patio seating.

Steiestol thinks municipalities should help pay for projects like this, helping them become more widespread.

“We’ve had municipalities coming down and their own teams from other cities taking note of what we’ve done,” she said.

Some communities have taken pandemic patios several steps further, implementing pedestrian-only street times and bringing in live music and public art, said DiPaolo.

“My hope as a planner is that … the success of these programs can be leveraged for more permanent improvements to the public realm,” he said.

“Instead of building makeshift patios into the street during the summer months, maybe we talk about expanding the public boulevard, where these issues of accessibility and mobility and safety are actually built into the design of the streetscape rather than addressed through the permitting process that happens every year.”

Toderian agreed that patio programs should be approached in a standardized way. “It’s no wonder these things aren’t getting done faster,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press

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