(This article originally appeared in the August-September 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)
Dining in the street became a thing in Baltimore two years ago when Covid shut down indoor dining citywide. City officials quickly put together a temporary, emergency policy to help restaurants stay afloat, allowing them to convert parking spaces outside their businesses into dining areas and reimbursing them for the permit fee.
About 20 restaurants on the South Baltimore peninsula took advantage of the new “parklets” policy. There are over 100 citywide, according to the Department of Transportation, with the highest concentration in Fells Point.
This June, with the Covid emergency fading in the rearview mirror, the City announced that the temporary parklets policy will end in December and a new, permanent policy will take its place in January. All indications are that this popular outdoor dining option is set to become a long-term feature of eating out on the peninsula.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the parklets,” says Liam Davis, legislative affairs manager at the City’s Department of Transportation, which administers the outdoor dining policy. “People like them. They help create a pedestrian-friendly environment and help create a vibrancy in a neighborhood that people often associate with walkable neighborhoods in places outside North America.”
Most of SoBo’s parklets are in the business district around Cross Street Market. According to Hank Shofer, president of the Federal Hill Business Association, they have benefited the whole neighborhood. “The parklets have been a great help to our neighborhood restaurants. With all of the Covid restrictions, it allowed many restaurants to keep their businesses going. It also brought a number of diners to the sidewalks of Federal Hill, which can only have a positive impact on the neighborhood.”
SoBo restaurant owners report that their patrons enjoy this new option. “While we have a handful of people that still don’t want to sit indoors, people just really enjoy sitting outside when the weather’s nice,” says Anna Leventis, owner of SoBo Café on E. Cross Street.
“Dining outdoors is where it’s at,” says Dave Rather, owner of Mother’s Federal Hill Grille on S. Charles Street. “People want to be outdoors now.”
The popularity of parklets has brought a new clientele to 1157 Bar & Kitchen on Haubert Street in Locust Point, according to owner Jason Ambrose. “Before Covid, we were much more of a bar. Now we’re more of a restaurant. You see more families, more kids, grandmas, dogs. We have a much more neighborhood, family feel.”
The parklet at Wiley Gunters on E. Fort Avenue is the favorite of Locust Point’s Vicky Booze and her family. “We love the parklets,” she wrote in response to a Peninsula Post Facebook post. “We have a two-year-old pandemic baby so we are big fans of outdoor dining. We feel safer sitting outside, and it’s easier to handle meltdowns.”
While there have been some complaints about the parklets, from their takeover of needed parking spaces to accessibility for disabled customers to some unattractive designs, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, says DOT’s Davis.
Before Covid, the City approved parklets for a few special occasions lasting just days or weeks. “People thought they were cool, but there wasn’t a push for widespread use of them until the pandemic,” says Davis.
Even before the City released a draft of its new parklet policy for public comment, some restaurant owners have moved ahead with implementing or planning upgrades to their parklets.
In May, Mother’s Federal Hill Grille constructed a seven-booth wooden parklet complete with a curb-level floor, corrugated roof, and string lights. “We wanted to make the new parklet a little nicer and more attractive than just eating on the street,” says Rather.
In June, nearby SoBo Café upgraded with a four-table wooden platform parklet with latticed walls, plants, and string lighting. The curb-level platform floor is safer for her customers, says Leventis. “The street was uneven and some people were having trouble getting their footing. We also added concrete jersey barriers after a hit-and-run driver struck our parklet in late 2020. Now I feel comfortable that my guests are safe.”
Other SoBo restaurant owners are already planning upgrades for their parklets. Wyatt Mackie, owner of Wiley Gunters, wants to build a curb-level platform when he is allowed to move his parklet back into the parking lane after a weeks-long move to the sidewalk to make way for utility work on E. Fort Avenue. “It will be nicer and more long term than what we did originally, when we didn’t know how long the program would last,” Mackie says.
Ambrose at 1157 Bar & Kitchen has begun to plan his parklet upgrades for later this summer. “We’re updating our computer system to make it more friendly for outside service using handheld devices, and we’re looking at different options for seating and new furniture.”
Davis says the City is focused on making parklets a strong, permanent program. The draft policy is currently undergoing scrutiny by city agencies, he reports. “There will be minimum standards in terms of their strength, how much weight they can support. We want to make the structures safer for diners but also not block vision for drivers using the road alongside them.” Structures will also have to be able to be dismantled easily for utility or road work, if needed.
“A lot of cities across the country are looking at parklets and actively working on new policies,” says Davis. “That’s what cities do: we innovate when problems come up. And this is just an example of Baltimore innovating.”
The City’s draft policy was posted online on October 14 for review with a 30-day public comment period. – Steve Cole