Even without the need for six feet of social distance, outdoor dining, and its power to brighten the streetscape, is in Baltimore to stay.

The latest initiative for permanent outdoor dining “parklets” — restaurant seating areas in public right-of-way spaces — was approved by the city’s Board of Estimates on Wednesday, establishing safety rules for seating structures and a fee system that will charge restaurants in affluent areas more per square foot.

The new policy, called Minor Privilege, takes effect July 1 and comes after years of public comment periods and opposition from the bike advocacy group Bikemore.

Its two-tiered fee system is based on geographic equity scores of the neighborhood and location of a business in the city transportation department’s annual “Complete Streets” report, an ordinance the city adopted in 2018 to elevate the priority of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users through roadway planning.

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Businesses in locations with a low equity score — like Federal Hill, Fells Point or Harbor East — will pay $10 per square foot of curbside space, while those with high equity scores like Curtis Bay, Station North and Charles North — will pay $5 per square foot.

In a letter of protest from bike advocacy group Bikemore, Jed Weeks, the group’s interim executive leader, stated that the fees could have business owners paying thousands of dollars more than what they pay for the same outdoor space when it’s used for parking or valet services.

“Even at the lower rate, you might be paying thousands more,” Weeks said. “We believe the fees should be more affordable to support small businesses, or at least be lower than the fees for comparable uses like valet.”

Weeks referred to the city’s flat fee for valet parking zone permits, which is $1,200 regardless of how many square feet of valet space a restaurant or business owns.

His group compared two restaurants, Tagliatta in Harbor East, and Guilford Hall Brewery in Station North, which have 880 square feet and 360 square feet of valet zone space respectively. Both restaurants pay a flat fee of $1,100. If they choose to use that space for outdoor dining under the new policy, they will pay $8,800 and $1,800 respectively, annually.

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“The actual permitting that the city drew up for our curbside dining is very good,” Weeks said. “It was really that fee structure that I thought could be improved.”

Liam Davis, a legislative affairs manager at the city’s department of transportation, said the proposal was designed to prioritize pedestrian use, safety and walkability. Davis said the fees are needed so that the space can be fully used by the public.

“We certainly do feel that the rate we’re proposing is fair, understanding that the businesses are going to be monetizing the public right of way,” said Davis. “We’re actively researching the valet rates and seeing if there is opportunity for improvement.”

While the rates might be steep, some business owners are used to the fees, even in neighborhoods the department deemed to have a high equity score. Helmand Karzai, the owner of Tapas Teatro in Station North, said he pays more than $2,000 per year for his Minor Privilege permit, and has been doing so since 2001.

“It’s always been a part of our business model,” Karzai said, adding that his outdoor dining space is attached to his liquor license. He believes his outdoor seating, which increases his seating capacity by a third, is also a big part of what his restaurant is known for.

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“If you sit outside long enough, everyone you know will walk past Tapas Teatro, you can see friends coming out of the Charles [Theatre], it’s just the feeling of it,” Karzai said. “It’s definitely worth it, but the difference is that we have always done it.”

The city’s department of transportation also released outdoor seating guidelines which mandate that dining areas must have five feet of clearance from driveways, alleys and handicap ramps, and seven feet of clearance between the sidewalk surface and overhead objects, like umbrellas.

In further efforts to protect the safety of public right-of-way space that could be used for outdoor dining, the city requires Minor Privilege permits for things like awnings, ramps, signs and plant hangings that protrude into designated parklets.

The benefits of parklets include the chance to enliven a streetscape, a task that is not always easy to achieve because of zoning and building barriers. In 2021, city council in Annapolis voted to extend temporary outdoor dining permits, and did so again in October this year.

Other major cities, like New York City, passed legislation to create licenses for restaurants to have outdoor seating following years of emergency temporary free permits during the pandemic.

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