Dallas Is Trying to Not Kill Sidewalk Cafes, But Old Habits Are Hard to Break

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You're an aspiring restaurateur. You've signed your lease, spent tens of thousands of dollars finishing out your space and getting all the proper permits and decide that it could use some European-style sidewalk seating.

Great! City Hall is 100 percent behind you and your progressive, urban ideas. So let's get started, shall we?

First, you'll need to submit your application along with a $750 non-refundable fee. Be sure to include a copy of your deed or lease agreement, a scale drawing, with measurements, showing the seating layout, and written agreements from adjacent property owners.

Then you'll wait while the application is reviewed by the appropriate city departments, the appropriate state agencies, and any utilities in the area. Assuming the proposal passes muster, the application will have to be approved by the full City Council, at which point you will be charged an annual permit fee of $1,000. The $750 was just for the application.

The Dallas City Council decided more than a year ago that this was absurd and completely at odds with its presumed goal of improving quality of life in the city.

David Cossum, the city's chief planner, went back to the drawing board and came up with what he must have thought was a fair, sensible revision that would encourage street life while not cutting too much into the city's right-of-way revenue.

Under his proposal, presented today to the City Council's Economic Development Committee, there would be a two-year pilot program during which businesses would be charged one-time "streetscape license fee" of $250 for sidewalk cafes, awnings, sidewalk retail, and the like. Sidewalk cafes would be charged an additional annual fee of between $300 and $1,000 depending on the number of tables and chairs. These would have to comply with to-be-determined "sidewalk cafe standards."

Annual revenue from streetscape licenses would drop by about a third, from $315,000 to $212,000, Cossum guessed, and there might be an increase in staffing needs to accommodate a possible increase in applications and reviews to ensure compliance with the new sidewalk cafe standards.

Councilman Scott Griggs, who has been pushing for simpler streetscape rules for years now, was damn near apoplectic.

"It's anti-urban -- and I also think it's anti-free market -- to charge all these fees," Griggs said, exasperated, during a rant that lasted several minutes.

Cossum's proposal would still strangle businesses in red-tape and still discourage them from taking steps to make the city a better, funner, more vibrant place. Plus, it didn't take into account additional sales and property tax revenue that could be generated by freeing up businesses.

"It's like we're grabbing these nickels and we're going to leave the dollars over there," he said.

Some basic regulations make sense, he conceded, but beyond a small fee and a check to ensure ADA compliance, Griggs predicted that the market would be able to sort out the issues the city is trying to regulate. Put chairs in front of a neighboring business? The landlord will intervene. Put a fence in Oncor's way? They'll have no problem knocking it down.

Griggs' colleagues on the committee agreed. Rick Callahan, perhaps the council's least funky member, seconded the laissez faire approach.

"Let's make it inviting, let's make it walkable, let's end the impediments here," he said. "Let's make it funky, let's make it unique."

Lee Kleinman offered a third: "I'd like to see the fees minimized, and I think we'd like to encourage streetscapes and vitality along our streets."

And Jerry Allen chimed in with a fourth: "At the end of the day it's not about the revenue...it's the sizzle. It's the sizzle that matters."

By the end of the meeting, a loose consensus had emerged around a one-time, $250 streetscape fee and minimal regulations. Council members instructed Cossum to come back with a streamlined proposal.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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