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Street Food: Cities Turn Parking Spaces Into Dining Spots And No One Seems To Mind

Oct 5, 2020
Originally published on October 5, 2020 7:01 am

In crowded cities, finding street parking can be a bit of a sport. In South Philly, it's almost a religion.

And like in many communities across America, a reliable wave of outrage greets proposals to reduce street parking — whether it's for bike lanes, bikeshare stands or green space.

But something strange happened this summer.

Just ask Randy Rucker, the chef and owner of River Twice on East Passyunk Ave. The restaurant placed tables in the street where as many as four cars used to squeeze in, in a neighborhood where every parking spot is prized.

Rucker was ready to deal with the backlash. But to his surprise, there was none.

"No one's knocking on my door cussing at me," Rucker said. "It's been a positive experience so far, believe it or not."

At the 12 Steps Down Bar, two parking spaces are blocked off with wooden barriers, tall reeds and strings of lights.
Hannah Yoon for NPR

He's not alone. Scores of cities around the world dramatically shifted their policies to encourage outdoor dining, which public health officials say is much safer than gathering indoors.

In Philadelphia, more than 400 businesses have taken advantage of a program allowing them to set up tables in parking spots.

And the typical frustration over parking changes has simply not materialized.

"There's been a lot of tolerance for things that are unusual," said Mike Carroll, the city's deputy managing director for transportation, infrastructure, and sustainability. "Residents have not complained in a big way about this."

The lack of outrage might be partly due to the lack of traffic. According to mapping company TomTom, Philadelphia's streets are about half as congested as they were pre-pandemic.

"It would be a different story if people were moving their car more often and trying to find parking, and were fighting for those parking spots," said Richard Shephard, as he sat in a converted parking spot at the South Philly restaurant Flannel. "But since they pretty much are stationary at this point in time, I don't think people are too upset by it."

Customers sit and eat in a converted parking spot outside of Flannel, a restaurant in Philadelphia.
Hannah Yoon for NPR

But even people who are driving and who still feel frustration over parking aren't protesting against the restaurant expansions. One big reason why: They know the pandemic poses an existential threat to local restaurants.

Marc Grika, the owner of Flannel, said his quickly built patio has slowed the bleeding for his business. "On a busy weekend, like when it's not raining, we can even break even — which is really a thrill," he said, with a rueful laugh.

Residents are well aware of what's at stake.

"It is a nuisance," said Brian Persons, as he sat at a table set up in the road by the restaurant Pistolas Del Sur, a few blocks away. "As a parker, it does take up spots. But I'm grateful .... that we can dine and we can help make them survive."

Left: Owner and chef of Flannel, Marc Grika, stands by his restaurant. Right: Co-owner and chef of Pistolas Del Sur, Adan Trinidad, poses outside his restaurant. Having extra tables has helped keep business owners afloat during really tough times.
Hannah Yoon for NPR

The next challenge for Philadelphia, like many other cities, is to figure out how to sustain outdoor dining through the frigid winter and even into next year.

And after that? Many local leaders are hoping that the current willingness to repurpose parking could lead to long-term changes in how street space is allocated, as some bike and pedestrian advocates, as well as city planners, have long pushed for.

"I hope that this gives Philadelphians the opportunity to view some of these changes that they've been a little bit afraid of and to enjoy them and to see how vibrant they can make our city," said Jamie Gauthier, a member of the Philadelphia city council and an urban planner by trade.

Danielle Renzulli, who owns a bar called 12 Steps Down just north of the Italian Market, was initially hesitant to expand into the street. It wasn't just resident outrage she was worried about; nearby businesses also value the fact that there are spaces where their customers can park.

But after she set up her tables, surrounded by a reed barrier and decorated with strings of lights, she hasn't received a single complaint. "Actually, I've gotten a lot of compliments on it," she said.

"We all probably imagine the worst," she added. "And it was not bad at all. "

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Customers eat outside at Sabrina's Cafe in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2020.
Hannah Yoon for NPR

NOEL KING, HOST:

If you live in a city, you know what a parking spot is worth. And here, I do not exaggerate, possibly as much as your rent. But during the pandemic, some people who live in cities are letting their parking spots go. Here's NPR's Camila Domonoske.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Philadelphia is a notoriously tough place to park. There was even a reality TV show called "Parking Wars" all about the tensions between residents and the dreaded parking authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKING WARS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why youse got to write us all tickets? What's wrong with youse?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One hour, 30-minute parking - they got two minutes, sir.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, where are you supposed to park at, buddy?

DOMONOSKE: And it's not just illegal parking that Philadelphians fight over. Proposals to reduce parking to create more space for bikes, pedestrians or parks usually prompt outrage. This is true in many cities. Car owners will vigorously object to even a few spaces disappearing. But a weird thing happened this summer. Hundreds of parking spaces were turned into outdoor dining. And to pretty much everyone's surprise...

RANDY RUCKER: No one's knocked on my door cussing at me.

DOMONOSKE: Randy Rucker is the chef and owner of River Twice, one of many Philadelphia restaurants that set up tables where cars used to be able to park. Local governments around the world have moved quickly to let more businesses move outdoors. In Philadelphia, indoor dining was banned all summer long. And in June, the city council made it easy for businesses to take over parking spots. At first, Danielle Renzulli was wary. She owns a bar called 12 Steps Down just north of the Italian Market.

DANIELLE RENZULLI: And I was hesitant to do the parklet because parking spaces are so valuable in the neighborhood.

DOMONOSKE: She thought there'd be too much backlash, a reasonable assumption. But as the pandemic stretched on, she realized she needed every table she could get.

RENZULLI: That's when I filed for the permit, and here we are (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: The first surprise was that getting the permit was easy. Before the pandemic, Renzulli had set up a few tables on the sidewalk. That meant blueprints and meetings.

RENZULLI: It took an entire year.

DOMONOSKE: Now the city's approving most permits to take over parking spaces in just three days. Renzulli set up a little patio.

RENZULLI: So we built a wooden barrier to protect the public from the traffic (laughter), and then we've hung some lights and some wreaths around it.

DOMONOSKE: And then came the second surprise - no one complained.

RENZULLI: Actually, I've gotten a lot of compliments on it. Everybody is like, it looks so cute. I love it.

DOMONOSKE: The lack of traffic might help explain the lack of outrage. Richard Shephard was recently eating lunch at a former parking spot outside of Flannel in South Philly.

RICHARD SHEPHARD: It would be a different story if people were moving their car more often and trying to find parking and were fighting for those parking spots. But since they pretty much are stationary at this point in time, I don't think people are too upset by it.

DOMONOSKE: But there's another reason people aren't upset. For restaurants that can't fill their dining rooms because of the risk of the coronavirus, the pandemic is an existential threat. Business owners say having extra tables has helped keep them afloat during really tough times. The city knows this, and residents are well aware of what's at stake. Brian Persons, for instance, was happy to be sitting in a parking space in front of Pistolas Del Sur.

BRIAN PERSONS: It is a nuisance, though. Like (laughter), as a parker, it does take up spots. But I'm grateful that we can dine and we can help make them survive.

DOMONOSKE: In short, he says, it's worth giving up the parking. Jamie Gauthier is a member of the Philadelphia city council and an urban planner by trade. She says, thinking like this is a shift for a car-centric city, and she hopes it continues.

JAMIE GAUTHIER: We have to weigh the benefit we're getting from having that be space for one car or having that be space for our communities to gather and enjoy themselves.

DOMONOSKE: It's hard to know whether this change in attitudes now will stick around once the pandemic is over. First, restaurants have to make it through the winter. But Danielle Renzulli, the owner of 12 Steps Down, says she's got one big takeaway from her experience taking space from cars and turning it into tables.

RENZULLI: We all probably imagined the worst. And you do it, and it was not bad at all.

DOMONOSKE: Change, she says, is not terrible.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.