Alexandria city planners were so pleased with the response to the outdoor dining offered during last month's Fall Festival in Old Town that they have decided to start a pilot program to allow expanded outdoors eating opportunities along King Street.
The program, which received unanimous City Council approval last week, would cut the administrative red tape that restaurant owners must navigate to provide outdoor seating at their establishments.
The pilot program takes effect immediately and will run through the end of the year. It is open to restaurants on King Street between the waterfront and the King Street Metro Station and to those on the blocks nearest the intersecting streets.
Officials say there are about 75 restaurants in the geographic area covered by the pilot program, although they cannot say how many of those will be disqualified because they do not meet the plan's sidewalk space requirements.
The trade-off for the benefits of offering outdoor seating, officials say, probably will be some sidewalk congestion during the peak tourist seasons when Old Town's streets bustle with visitors.
"Many cities have found the benefits of outdoor eating," said Tom Fairchild, a business facilitator for the city who has been helping coordinate the pilot project.
"It's like everything else in life," Fairchild said. "There are trade-offs. Outdoor eating for restaurants adds a level of vibrancy and dynamism that makes the trade-off worthwhile."
The idea for the pilot program grew out of the success of special outdoor seating during last month's arts festival and the notion that outdoor dining is a key ingredient in helping city restaurants remain competitive with area eateries.
The King Street retail advisory committee has been meeting throughout the year to identify strategies to strengthen the retail appeal and vibrancy of King Street. Outdoor dining was one of the ideas that surfaced during committee workshops.
Ralph Davis, owner of two King Street restaurants, the Wharf and Warehouse Bar & Grill, was outside last week, yellow tape measure in hand, measuring his sidewalks.
He has about 16 feet of sidewalk to work with, and that will accommodate about 15 additional seats, he said. Davis said that the net financial gain of the added tables will be small but that the gain for Old Town will be huge.
"It's going to make it more inviting and interesting," Davis said. He said that Old Town doesn't have the cachet that it once did, because local restaurateurs are competing with newer eateries throughout Northern Virginia, many of them upscale. Outdoor seating, he said, will draw new patrons and make Old Town more appealing and competitive.
Davis said that city planners haven't historically been so helpful to local businesses but that now they are doing "whatever they can" to help businesses lure shoppers and diners.
During the pilot program, city officials will try to identify potential problems, solicit input from the public and determine whether and how the program could be implemented on a long-term basis and perhaps expanded to other parts of the city.
Previously, a restaurant that wanted to offer outdoor seating in an area that encroached on a public right of way had to apply for a permit from the City Council. Under the terms of the pilot, restaurants within the identified zone will go through a simple, no-cost administrative approval process.
Restaurants interested in participating will have to show, among other things, that there is adequate space on the sidewalk beyond the seating area to allow the free passage of pedestrians. The outdoor seating plan must leave a usable sidewalk area, free of any obstructions, that is at least five feet wide at all points adjacent to the outdoor seating area.
"The hope is that it'll be a big success, and come the beginning of next year, the City Council will take action to make it a permanent program" and expand its scope, Fairchild said. "It'll give energy to King Street that wasn't there before."