Edmonton’s maturing patio culture is well-documented, with city officials finally streamlining the process to satisfy restaurant owners eager to increase capacity and customers craving to dine outdoors. However, as eateries line up to take advantage of this overdue change, many retail storefronts remain unadorned, the result of higher licensing fees that some store owners argue are impractical for independent businesses.
Old Strathcona’s adherence to promoting independent retail has created an atmosphere in which local store owners have access to a large population of shoppers, but its increasingly competitive nature means that owners often struggle to maintain consistent foot traffic or attract new customers. According to David LaLonde, owner of Artifacts Trading Company, pushing his unique wares onto the sidewalk and closer to dense foot traffic would provide easy advertising to curious shoppers. Such an opportunity had long been an attractive prospect for LaLonde, until the city’s implementation of the new patio strategy—one that saw the process get much easier for restaurants—made him give up entirely.
“What I want is fairness,” LaLonde says. “Especially on Whyte Avenue, [it’s all] alcohol. Now, they’re encouraging more alcohol. If you’re renting city property and if you sell alcohol, why is it so much cheaper than if you sell any other item?”
Under the City’s new Café Sidewalk Guidelines, restaurants pay a flat fee of $100 for a major patio and $25 for a minor patio of up to eight seats over a five-year term. The Department of Transportation Guidelines for Extended Lobbies states that the five-year licence fee to sell general goods on a sidewalk is “based on a market value appraisal of the neighbourhood.” Also, whereas patio fees cover the entire year, storefront retail licences are only valid from June 1 to September 30—unless owners wish to pay a monthly fee to go beyond the summer months.
Harry Luke, a Senior Planner in the Office of Sustainable Development, says that the sidewalk café guidelines were updated so that restaurant owners will no longer have to go through two separate city departments. Sustainable Development serves as a catch-all for this process, leaving Transportation to focus more on other right-of-way issues relating to roads, sidewalks and boulevards.
“The Department of Transportation runs the sidewalks,” Luke says. “Where we come in is the function of its extension with regards to how it can operate year round.”
Sustainable Development guidelines address a variety of patio considerations, from the type of barriers used for separating patrons and pedestrians to enforcing uniformity between tables, chairs and umbrellas. As specific as the guidelines are, some restaurant owners feel the enforcement to be lacking.
Tres Carnales Taqueria is one restaurant that has benefitted from the new licence process, finally installing a brand-new patio this summer and adding close to 50-percent capacity to their restaurant. After being rejected without clarification last year, co-owner Chris Sills wanted to ensure that his patio was built right, even if meant higher costs.
“We wanted it to be safe,” Sills says. “We wanted there to be a good barricade, so that you still feel that you’re a part of the restaurant rather than just throwing some resin chairs and some tape and a couple of plants.”
Sills feel like this has long been a problem with Edmonton patios. Owners tend to take advantage of the limited enforcement by installing minimal barriers and going beyond the approved area, leaving patrons open to potential dangers from passing pedestrians or vehicles. Such negligence, Sills says, is what has been holding other businesses back.
“It’s a chicken or egg thing,” Sills argues. “Has transportation been leery about patios because people don’t put the time and effort into a patio to make it safe?”
LaLonde agrees that patio enforcement is lacking, wondering why the city is in such a rush to create meagre patios while retailers have been left behind. Ideally, LaLonde argues, the city will work to similarly refine the process for store owners, perhaps combining restaurants and stores under a unified set of guidelines.
Such a future is possible, according to Luke, but ultimately he argues that each business comes with a separate set of considerations.
“We try to tackle one issue at a time,” he says. “The thing with sidewalk cafés is you’re not just throwing out tables and chairs, you’re going to have umbrellas, and perhaps heat warmers. There are more planning issues with spacing and esthetics, while ensuring that right of ways are maintained.”
LaLonde doesn’t buy this distinction, arguing that every business, regardless of focus, is just trying to maximize their ability to sell.
“The main thing is that I just want consistency,” LaLonde says. “I don’t care whether it’s $100 for five years or $100 per month, but it should be the same.
“If you’re renting property from the City of Edmonton, what’s the difference whether it’s for a beer or a T-shirt?”