Perspective: Parklets for outdoor dining in Baltimore create cost, equity concerns

Permissions granted by city mean disadvantages for some neighborhoods and businesses

Published on: January 20, 2023 6:00 AM EST

The Department of Transportation expanded its outdoor dining program in 2020 to include parklets—street parking spaces converted into outdoor dining areas—in an effort to encourage social distancing and provide a boost to the restaurant industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, they've grown in popularity.
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I own a small business in Fells Point. I like eating outside. I love Baltimore. The prevalence of outdoor dining is one of the best things to come out of the pandemic. But cost is among the issues that must be considered. I urge the city to fully consider safety and equity for its citizens and all types of businesses as well as its own revenue stream.

We’re now at a crossroads. The permissions granted to restaurants to create parklets at the beginning of the pandemic will be extended beyond the experiment of the past three years. The new iteration of Baltimore City’s curbside retail guidelines incorporates feedback from its first iteration as well as addresses a number of challenges faced by other municipalities in making these accommodations permanent. In Baltimore, they succeed at giving community restaurants a fantastic advantage by adding outdoor capacity but create serious inequity by business type and location.

The new guidelines set a rate of approximately $2,000 annually citywide per parking space to be used for outdoor dining in front of a commercial property. The city currently collects roughly one-and-a-half times this amount through the current minor privilege fee structure, but in Fells Point, which does include businesses besides bars and restaurants, the city collects more than $7,000 annually per metered parking space. Can Baltimore City really afford to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars in meter revenue annually?

In neighborhoods across the city, regardless of economic development or opportunity, the per-parking-space rate under the new guidelines is consistent, whether that’s Fells Point, Lauraville, Park Heights or Sandtown. Economic opportunity is greater in Fells Point, and consumption of city services and resources is greater. Yet the loss of parking meter revenue in Fells Point would be far greater than in other communities. How is that equitable?

Parklets, in their current form, are at best a public safety nuisance, and at worst, they’re dangerous. How can the city plow snow if there is a parklet extending into the area the snowplow needs? How can the city clean up the trash that accumulates in and around parklets and feeds the rats in their new warm and cozy homes? What would happen, God forbid, if a hurricane passed through again? How could parklets be dismantled quickly and safely enough to avoid worsening a related safety issue?

Additionally, the current structures are nearly impossible for the disabled to access. Some even utilize parking spaces that are otherwise designated as handicapped parking, making the situation both inequitable and unsafe.

In retail, convenience is key to success. This city is home to world-class retail that draws customers from across Baltimore and the region. The key to convenience is the service businesses provide face to face, as well as the ability for customers to take purchases home in that moment. In Fells Point alone, parklets have consumed more than 100 parking spaces, thousands more citywide. If a customer can’t park anywhere near a particular store, they will seek a more convenient solution, maybe from the thousands of retailers available on their phones from the convenience of their sofa. Is that better for the city?

I urge the city to reconsider the discounting and distributing of public space for the benefit of some at great cost to others.

Nicholas Johnson is founder and owner of Su Casa Furniture in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood.

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