Arlington, VA

County staff want to amend zoning ordinances to let some restaurants more easily establish outdoor cafés near the Ballston, Virginia Square and Courthouse Metro stations.

Arlington County has allowed outdoor cafés in most commercial and mixed-use districts since 1978, with the exception of a few zoned districts. The County Board is slated to review an amendment allowing cafés in one such zoning district — the “R-C” district — this weekend.

“Outdoor cafes are compatible with the district’s purpose and intent and would further bolster the economic vitality of restaurants located with the district,” the staff report said. “Outdoor cafes enliven the streetscape, provide passive surveillance of the street, and enable people’s participation in street life.”

The outdoor cafés in question could be either on private property, as a by-right use, or on the sidewalk, with an approved permit. It would apply to restaurants within R-C — “Multiple-family Dwelling and Commercial District” — zoning.

An informal survey conducted by the County found a majority of residents who responded support this change. Of the 69 respondents, 85% supported the amendment because cafés would have a positive effect on on activating street life.

“Other common themes included helping out restaurants during a challenging economic period, enabling restaurants to respond more effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic, and seeking out opportunities to reclaim street parking for outdoor cafes in areas with narrow sidewalks,” staff said.

Concerns expressed by survey respondents ranged from noise, keeping pedestrian pathways clear and charging rent for the use of public space.

This amendment does not involve the program for temporary outdoor seating areas, or TOSAs, staff said.

“In response to the need for increased public health measures to combat the coronavirus, Arlington County permits restaurants, bars and cafes to establish temporary outdoor seating areas (TOSAs) which resemble outdoor cafes but are regulated and permitted under different laws,” staff said.

Rather, this amendment has been a work plan item for the Planning Division for a while now — “well before on the onset of COVID-19,” Arlington County spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in an email.

“One benefit of TOSAs is that some of the restaurants who have been advocating for this amendment were able to have temporary outdoor dining since June through the TOSA process,” Smith said. “With the approval of this amendment, they can pursue a permanent outdoor café.”

Although the change comes as struggling restaurants lean on outdoor dining, even in the winter months, outdoor cafés have been part of Arlington County’s plan to enliven retail corridors for the last five years.

In the 2015 Retail Action Plan, outdoor cafés are encouraged because they improve the pedestrian experience in and increase the number of “third places” for the community to gather.

“‘Third places’ — locations outside of home or work where people meet, socialize and learn from each other — are highlighted as community elements that, when present, can add activity and excitement to street life as centers of gathering,” the County’s web page says.

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