May 28, 2014 at 1:00 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Outdoor café fee hike hot as a summer sidewalk
fee, gay news, Washington Blade

The popular patio at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It might have seemed like a good idea to D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to scheme up a proposal to hike city fees for outdoor cafés by $1 million in the dreary days of winter. But it sure looked silly when the public caught wind of it last week in the run-up to the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

When D.C. Council members sat down at an all-day meeting to review Gray’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act, incorporating Council recommendations, a previously little-known proposal to more than double sidewalk café fees for most businesses and nearly double them for the remaining few dominated public attention.

Dupont Circle eateries on 17th Street were featured on NBC4 News with reporter Tom Sherwood. Hank’s Oyster Bar manager Jeff Strine and Floriana Restaurant owner Dino Tapper pointed out that ever-increasing fees and taxes were a growing hardship for local establishments. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells pledged his opposition to the increase, saying, “It really sends a message to small business that we’re raising the fee for the sake of raising the fee.”

Mayor Gray wants to increase annual fees by 66 percent – although a companion provision eliminating prorated fees for partial-year seasonal operation converts it to a much higher amount for all but about 30 businesses among hundreds.

Reaction was equally swift and harsh to an additional element of the legislation. A D.C. Council committee, chaired by frequent enterprise nemesis Mary Cheh, had approved a new penalty stipulating that business owners could face imprisonment of up to 10 days or a fine of $1,000 for each day of a regulatory violation.

Local restaurateur and industry advocate Geoff Tracy remarked on social media, “I’ll never understand why politicians keep restaurants perpetually in the crosshairs.”

At-Large Council member David Grosso – not always a friend to local small businesses but proven when provoked to possess common-sense reactions to the most egregious excesses – took to Twitter to call the idea of locking up business owners for regulatory infractions “ridiculous.” Logan Circle neighborhood advisory chair Matt Raymond sardonically commented on Facebook, “We MUST get these dangerous scofflaws whose sidewalk cafés encroach one inch beyond their permit off the streets and behind bars, where they belong!”

You could envision neighborhood naysayers rustling around in kitchen drawers for tape measures. Cheh sensibly demurred, suggesting she was willing to remove the prison provision.

Gray’s proposal, along with Cheh’s committee, also relinquishes future D.C. Council control of regulations and fees – instead giving the executive exclusive authority to determine all licensing approvals, rules and permit costs. Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington President Kathy Hollinger had earlier written to Council members arguing against investing sole authority with the mayor.

“Sidewalk cafés contribute greatly to the ambiance of our city, create jobs and provide substantial revenues…through sales and employment taxes,” Hollinger wrote. “In addition, sidewalk cafés contribute to public safety, by encouraging ‘eyes on the street,’ a known inhibitor of criminal activity. Given these important contributions…the rental rates paid for the use of public space for cafés should be part of larger policy discussions before the full Council…”

D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, however, astonishingly revealed he thought the proposed fees weren’t set high enough.

David Garber, a neighborhood advisory commissioner in the rapidly developing Navy Yard area where residents gleefully cheer the opening of each new outdoor dining and drinking space, offered a succinct retort. “D.C. already has a reputation for being a difficult and costly place to start and run a business. When businesses and entrepreneurs are considering where to open, grow, and succeed, I hope that in the future our reputation is a little more friendly than it is today. Proposed fee increases like this won’t bring us there, and will ultimately cost us more than we hope to earn.”

D.C. Council budget deliberations get underway this week. As quick as an egg fries up on a hot summer sidewalk, the Council should reject these proposals.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at

  • UPDATE: Due to the overwhelming opposition by both businesses and residents to the proposed outdoor cafe fee increase, business penalties for regulatory infractions and transfer of regulatory authority to the mayor, the entire proposal was eliminated from the DC Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act of 2014, now approved by the DC Council.

  • Mr. Lee –

    I won’t take a position on how much sidewalk cafes should pay in permitting each year, even though it obviously allows applicable businesses to generate tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in revenue, which should certainly cover the cost, whatever it is, for that space.

    And I won’t say I support a ten day prison sentence for those who violate the rules. It is not germane to my position.

    But, I will ask you to do something your regular column indicates you do not do often. I ask that you put yourself in another persons shoes. Or, as is applicable here, put yourself in the shoes of someone whose feet are in a foot rest of a wheelchair. That wheelchair, for your information, is usually about 32″ wide. Some “sport” wheelchairs are marginally thinner – 26″-30″ wide.

    Matt Raymond speaks of “scofflaw” sidewalk cafe permit holders who are “one inch” past the allowable distance like it’s some sort of joke, and like those cafe permit holders stop at just one inch. I wonder how loud Matt Raymond would laugh in front of the family at the funeral of the first disabled veteran who lives in his SMD who got hit by a car trying to go out into the street around a sidewalk cafe and a light pole, newspaper stand, or parking meter that his or her wheelchair couldn’t fit between. Disabled people will often choose trying to find a space between parked cars that they can fit rather than suffering the embarrassment of being caught between a cafe and a meter or worse, having to ask an able-bodied person to go into the establishment to find a manager who can move the sidewalk cafe barrier so they can fit through.

    Mr. Lee and Mr. Raymond –

    I hope both of you count your blessings every single day for the fact that you can just walk on by these “inconveniences”. Some people you represent, in that case of Mr. Raymond, or that you preach to, in the case of Mr. Lee, cannot do what you so easily laugh off. Some people have the choice between using a safe sidewalk adjacent to business owners who respect the fact that the laws are present for a reason or suffering the quiet, silent humiliation of risking their lives as to not make a fuss wheeling themselves out into the roadway to get where they are going.

    Shame on you both.

    I want BOTH of you to spend a week navigating all of ANC 2F in a wheelchair while you’re in public space. You get the luxury of getting out of that chair to move about your home – do your laundry, put your dishes away, brush your teeth, take a shower, anything you can do on your own two feet in your own home, go for it. But spend the rest of your seven days in public space in a wheelchair. See how many establishments you can’t even get into without help. And how many more you can’t even get PAST without risking your life and going into traffic. And THEN, comment on the appropriate penalties for people with sidewalk cafes that are bigger than permits allow.

    Try THAT. Try it for a month. I bet neither one of you even lasts a day. But for many, many people, that’s a lifetime.

  • I’m not sure which is worse–the overwrought tone of the article (“restaurants perpetually in the crosshairs”–the horror!) or the key information that Lee leaves out. Quick, read the article and find what the fee actually is. Can’t find it? That’s because Lee doesn’t bother to say.

    Presumably, that’s because he’d sound even more ridiculous if he did. The annual cost, since 1992, for a restaurant to take public sidewalk space is currently $5/square foot for an open-air cafe, and $10/square foot for an enclosed cafe. The proposal was to raise that to $8.30 or $16.30, respectively. And again, that’s per year. So even a restaurant that took over 500 square feet of public sidewalk would only see costs rise by over $3K per year. Should be a way for a decently run business to scrape that up over the course of a year.

    And remember, this isn’t a random fee from some mean anti-business boogeymen. It’s the rent that restaurants pay to use publicly owned, publicly maintained sidewalks for their private businesses. The current rate hasn’t risen in 22 years, and it’s a steal. And as commenter “wheels” points out, when businesses take up that sidewalk space, it has real consequences for others’ ability to get around.

    If Lee had focused on Cheh’s ridiculous criminal penalties, then that would have been a different piece. But that’s tangential to his main argument here about the “hardship” imposed on local businesses (which are still somehow booming–go figure). It’s a shame that Lee has so little faith in his main argument that he needs to make it by selective omission.

  • To the commenter above, I understand the source of your remarks and your frustration, but you’re reading too much into a single quote of mine in Mark’s column.

    I invite you to attend any of our ANC 2F meetings, because you would find out that without fail, the first thing I want to know from public space permit applicants is how much egress there will be for pedestrians. I have personally taken on more than one establishment that has indeed gone beyond the bounds of its permit, and it’s likely that the types of unsafe scenarios you describe above have actually been averted because of my efforts as a volunteer, unpaid ANC commissioner, and those of my dedicated colleagues.

    My comment was merely one of astonishment at a certain anti-business, over-regulatory mindset gone mad that prevails too often in the District. You at least seemed to concede the absurdity of the proposal, which is all I was doing as well.

    Matt Raymond
    Chairman, ANC 2F

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