Owners will now be able to set up temporary outdoor seating areas — or TOSAs — in common areas, such as plazas, following a vote during the recessed County Board meeting on Tuesday.
In May, when the County first established a program to allow TOSAs to respond to the pandemic, the seating on sidewalks and patios had to be associated with specific restaurants and bars.
The decision to give restaurants more space and flexibility is partly in response to a request from representatives of a plaza in Shirlington to open the space to outdoor seating for several nearby restaurants.
“Businesses have discovered another dimension of work in this enhanced environment,” County Board member Takis Karantonis said during the meeting. “I believe for the most part they are working very well, I’m very thankful for the enhancement before us today.”
This seating arrangement could be here to stay, County Manager Mark Schwartz told the board.
“We may need to drop the ‘T’ in TOSA,” Schwartz said. “We’ll see.”
To keep this going post-pandemic, the County Board would have to codify it in the zoning ordinance, County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac said. This ordinance will last up to six months after the emergency is declared over.
Expanding seating options through TOSA will accelerate implementation and avoid the fees associated with existing county processes for approving outdoor seating, Anthony Fusarelli, assistant director for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Urban Development, told ARLnow.
The change comes as County officials encourage restaurants, which have set up tents and heaters outside the new permitting process, to go through official channels.
“We’re finding propane heaters used and stored under tents, and tents not being set up under TOSA,” which is not allowed, Fusarelli told the County Board.
CPHD has received only a dozen tent requests through TOSA applications, which means owners may not be aware of the rules, or are going outside of them, Fusarelli said.
This spring, the County had 250 requests for outdoor dining “of some sort,” and 120 TOSA applications, Fusarelli said. Since the temporary program launched, his department has approved 93 TOSAs.
“We’re doing the best we can on our end to respond to requests,” Fusarelli said. “We approved the first applications late last week, and will approve more in the future.”
The change would especially help restaurants without space on their property to accommodate and winterize outdoor seating according to Virginia’s fire codes. Heaters have to be five feet from exits, awnings and tents, and only electric heaters are permitted under tents.
He is doing it anyway, even though the Arlington County Fire Department has repeatedly asked the restaurant to turn the heaters off.
@ARLnowDOTcom @ArlingtonVA @ClarendonBros @Arlingtonfire This is simply inhumane. Not allowing outside heat whe it’s 40 degrees . Please talk to DC, MD and ALL other counties in VA. Your residents demand it , business needs it . @WTOP @washingtonpost #keeptheheat pic.twitter.com/lSJ2EdUA59
— Medium Rare (@MediumRareDC) December 8, 2020
“We have to because people are freezing,” Bucher told ARLnow. “If I stop, and I don’t heat the tents, I’m out of business.”
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.
As the November chill setting in, Arlington County restaurants are taking steps to keep guests cozy as they eat at impromptu patios.
Outdoor dining continues to be an option for restaurants that want to seat more customers while keeping indoor occupancy low. But some Arlington restaurant owners are facing hurdles outfitting their space with heaters and extra seating while meeting local and state laws.
So far, the County has approved 21 requests for propane heaters. But some restaurants, including Medium Rare in Virginia Square, do not have enough outdoor space to keep their guests warm while meeting state fire codes.
Medium Rare’s owner, Mark Bucher, said he and other Arlington restaurant owners are being forced to choose among three bad options: close the outdoor seating space, spend thousands of dollars on electric heating, or break the law and put up propane heaters anyway.
Bucher, who has been organizing large-scale free meal deliveries during the pandemic, has started asking the County to cut the red tape that he says is making it harder to expand patio seating and subsequently, set up heaters.
“Arlington, which is normally the most business-friendly jurisdiction in the area, has been the worst on this,” said Bucher, who also operates in Bethesda and D.C. “There has been no proactive outreach.”
Arlington County spokeswoman Erika Moore said the County is taking steps to help businesses transition to winter.
“The Arlington County Fire Prevention Office is working hard to ensure businesses can remain open and operating as we move to colder weather,” she said in an email.
Part of the space issue stems back to the summer, when some Arlingtonians wanted to see streets closed so tables and chairs could spill into the street. But this never happened, due to a lack of resources and manpower, county officials said in October. A number of temporary outdoor seating areas were approved, and in some cases street parking spaces were used to help accommodate them, but bolder action was not taken.
Neighboring Fairfax County, meanwhile voted last month to relax regulations around tents and heaters.
With winter near, restaurant owners in Arlington do not just need space for outdoor seating, Bucher said, they need space to install heaters according to code. Propane heaters, for example, have to be five feet from buildings and exits, and cannot be under tents or canopies.
There’s a permit process that must be followed, which involves submitting a permit for heaters and possibly re-submitting a permit to change a restaurant’s set-up for outdoor seating. That all takes time, and restaurants are running out of time.
Out of desperation, in areas where seating is limited to sidewalks, some restaurants are putting up heaters anyway.
“People are doing it, but technically, you’re not allowed to have one,” Bucher said.
He said he tried to install a silent, diesel-powered, zero-emission heater at the Arlington Medium Rare, but was informed that also did not meet code.
Bucher said the problem is “an old fire code that is antiquated,” as well as overzealous enforcement.
“No one has said, ‘We’re going to hold off on this so that restaurants can have seating,'” he said.
Good morning. We know this is an area of concern and have approved 21 permits for outdoor gas heaters since September. There are state fire codes restricting their use, but we are assisting local businesses to the extent that we can. Link to more info ⬇️ https://t.co/98L0wQaHJi
— Arlington Fire (@ArlingtonVaFD) November 18, 2020
Moore said Arlington County has helped create more seating for restaurant, approving 92 temporary outdoor seating areas that added more than 900 temporary outdoor tables countywide.
“Some of these have involved temporarily repurposing portions of public rights of way to increase space for restaurant seating, including in the Shirlington and Clarendon neighborhoods,” she said.
The County also has published a guide for transitioning to winter that addresses the commercial use of tents and heaters and recommends blankets, hand-warmers, cozy food and drinks and prix fixe menus. But even the warmest of drinks is unlikely to do much to boost business during the coldest of winter nights.
Bucher said Arlington should look to D.C. and Montgomery County, which are issuing grants specifically for restaurants to winterize, and have taken steps to close parts of streets for extra seating.
In D.C., 428 restaurants have received $2.6 million in funds to winterize, DCist reports, and the government still has $1.4 million to distribute. Restaurants in Montgomery County can apply for grants worth up to $10,000.
This summer, the County did award $2.8 million to nearly 400 small businesses through the Small Business Emergency GRANT Program, which “helped small businesses, including restaurants, transition as needed to operate during COVID,” Moore said.
To create more space D.C. shut down metered parking to create “streateries” in some areas, Bucher said. In Arlington, the process to expand patio seating is still beset with applications and fees, despite the extraordinary times, he added.
“I have to pay fees in a pandemic?” he asked.
Arlington did not, although many residents supported the idea, according to an ARLnow poll from April that found support for closing streets among 80% of respondents.
The county did not close roads primarily because it lacked materials and manpower, Director of Transportation Dennis Leach told the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee during its meeting on Monday. The explanations angered members.
Gillian Burgess, the former chair of the committee, told ARLnow that the meeting was “frustrating.” Members were told to advocate for increased funding to close streets and to attend other meetings, which she said deflected the responsibility away from the department.
“No one is willing to say ‘Yes, how do we do it?'” she said.
Burgess started championing the cause in March, when she rallied together people from various organizations to ask the County Manager for more space for non-drivers. Their efforts were unsuccessful.
Transportation and Operations Bureau Chief Hui Wang told ARLnow that the department looked at the roads people suggested for closures, considering safety, feasibility, resources and the opinions of neighboring businesses and residents.
“We had a hard time to find a good piece of road that was suitable for the treatment that was suggested,” she said.
Obstacles included frequent bus stops and curb cuts, pick-up and drop-off zones next to businesses and access for emergency responders, Wang said. Closing streets, she said, is not as easy as just putting up a few signs.
Signs must meet national standards, for instance, while getting placed in safe spots, checked for damage and replaced when necessary, she said. Safety requirements like these make the task difficult.
Wang said the pandemic revealed what her bureau lacked in order to respond. Her team did manage to procure temporary outdoor seating areas within sidewalks, and closed some parking lanes to allow people to walk around the new outdoor dining areas, but does not have the resources for large-scale temporary pedestrian-only zones, she said.
Another factor in the action: questions of equity and whether closing streets in certain areas would benefit those hardest-hit by the pandemic.
Arlington successfully closed 0 streets, added 0 bike lanes (except those already planned in the before times), and widened 0 sidewalks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, we added some TOSAs, but those are incredibly limited. Yet, we're asking if transit we provide is equitable. https://t.co/8DSadBitDv
— Stephen Repetski (@srepetsk) October 5, 2020
Burgess said she understood these reasons at the beginning of the pandemic. Eight months later, it is “super disappointing that Arlington can’t be creative, nimble or quick and can’t try something that would serve residents,” she said.
Arlington transportation officials have now turned their attention to Arlington Public Schools an an anticipated return to school for students. They are working to identify the best routes for walking and changing the timing of lights to make crossing the street safer.
Buses will operate at a lower capacity, meaning more parents may drive their kids when they could walk or bike instead, Burgess said. She said a silver lining of decreased busing may be a growing realization that Arlington should prioritize making streets more biking- and walking-friendly.
After nearly 40 years, Joe Javidara said the future of his soccer-themed bar Summers Restaurant in Courthouse (1520 N. Courthouse Road) hinges on a permit he said is being processed through Arlington County government.
The restaurant announced on Monday that it was temporarily closed until it could get a permit for outdoor seating.
Like many local restaurant owners with insufficient indoor seating to allow for social distancing, Javidara said getting one of the county’s temporary outdoor seating requests is crucial to ensuring that customers feel safe returning to local eateries.
Jessica Margarit, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development, said the county has received 110 applications for Temporary Outdoor Seating Area permits. Of those, 75 have been approved. Four were denied while 13 remain under review. The other 17 are listed as inactive — meaning they have not followed up with staff on requests for additional information — and one was withdrawn.
Asked about it by ARLnow, Margarit said the county had not received a new TOSA application from Summers yet.
Dear Summers friends,We will TEMPORARILY CLOSE until we get an outdoor seating permit from the Arlington, County. …
It’s a process the county has worked to make easier over the last few months, but Javidara faces a critical snag: his sidewalk is too narrow. An earlier application in June was denied because staff found that putting the restaurant space on the sidewalk would not allow enough space for pedestrians to safely maneuver.
“This time, I went to county and told them we’re going to close, we’ve closed already,” Javidara said. “We got the application. Hopefully we’ll see. They’re going to send the engineer to check it out… Without the outside seating we can’t pay the rent.”
Javidara’s solution had been to utilize the on-street parking area, removing four parking spaces to make way for tables with a cleared space on the sidewalk between the seating and the restaurant for pedestrians to pass through. It’s a move that’s been implemented in places like Clarendon and Shirlington, and in other jurisdictions like Alexandria, to the benefit of local restaurants.
He tried that approach in June, arguing that no one was coming to work in the nearby buildings anyway, but was rejected.
“We tried to open anyway, but we’re losing a lot of money and paying $20,000 in rent,” Javidara said. “And there’s no sports, so it feels like everything is against us.”
It isn’t the first time Summers Restaurant has been in dire straits. In 2014, Javidara expressed similar concerns about increasing rent possibly driving the restaurant out of business.
Now, he’s been told the application could be processed sometime in the next two or three weeks. Margarit said the average application reviews for TOSA permits take 5-10 days, sometimes less.
“They’re slow these days,” Javidara said. “By the time we get it, it could maybe be the end of October. There might still be a few weeks of nice weather. We’ve been here for 37 or 38 years, but if this doesn’t go through we’re going to go.”
Regardless, the building Summers calls home may not be long for this world: the entire block is set for redevelopment.
Protest Outside Westover Post Office — About 15 protesters held a “Save the U.S. Postal Service” rally outside the Post Office at 5877 Washington Blvd in Westover yesterday. The two-hour lunchtime demonstration was organized as part of the American Postal Worker Union National Day of Action. [@KalinaNewman/Twitter]
Historic Review Board Likes Shirlington Plan — “The Arlington County government’s historic-preservation advisory body seems generally satisfied that retention of historic features will be seen as an important component of the redevelopment of the Village at Shirlington. In particular, the low-slung storefronts along Campbell Avenue are expected to be protected from the wrecking ball, even as taller and more dense development likely will be allowed immediately behind them.” [InsideNova]
New BBQ Restaurant Opens Patio — “Smokecraft Modern Barbecue is excited to debut its much-anticipated patio, now open daily for outdoor dining and drinking. Arlington residents and visitors can now enjoy Smokecraft’s award-winning barbecue outside on a socially distant patio, consisting of 38 seats.” [Press Release]
TTT in Clarendon to Host Virtual DJ — Updated at 9:30 a.m. — “Beginning Friday, September 4… TTT (Tacos, Tortas & Tequila) known for its casual Mexican-influenced fare is adding an exciting bit of fun on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons with virtual DJs. Guests dining on the first floor and on the third floor TTT Rooftop, which seats 82 and offers wonderful views on the city, will enjoy watching and listening to live streaming DJ performances via large screen projection.” [Press Release]
Family Pushing for Arlington House Change — “Descendants of Charles Syphax have been courting lawmakers for the past few months to make the change, said Syphax family historian Steve Hammond, who lives in Sterling, Va. The family’s effort is motivated as much by a desire to accurately honor the full history of the property and the enslaved people who lived there as it is by any antipathy toward Lee.” [Washington Post]
Nearby: Back to School in Falls Church — Students have started the fall semester, virtually, in Falls Church. A TV news segment shows teachers conducting their virtual classes from their actual, physical classrooms. [NBC 4]
Italian restaurant Sfoglina in Rosslyn has opened an outdoor seating area on the rooftop of its high-rise building for evening dining and drinks with an expansive view of the D.C. skyline.
“We are grateful to Monday Properties for giving us this amazing opportunity to add an incredible bespoke experience to Sfoglina Rosslyn,” said Jessica Botta, a spokesperson for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants. “The response has been outstanding, and it’s not hard to understand why. This is simply the best view in all of the D.C. area paired with a refreshing lineup of cocktails and savory tastings unique to the Rooftop Terrace.”
The restaurant opened this past October at 1100 Wilson Blvd, one of Rosslyn’s iconic twin towers.
Botta emphasized that the rooftop is not a bar, but that it does have an array of cocktails, wine and beer along with small plates. The terrace is open in the evenings and at nights, from 5-11 p.m. on Wednesday-Sunday, with the last seating at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, or 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
“Appetizer style dishes include: Chilled Shrimp or Lobster Cocktail, Crab Salad on Brioche, Heirloom Tomato Salad, and design-your-own style options from the Mozzarella Bar,” Botta said.
Whether the new rooftop access is permanent or not is still undecided, but Botta said it has helped the restaurant handle some of the pandemic-related restrictions.
“Time may be limited to how long we might extend the rooftop offering,” Botta said, “but it has been an enormous help in allowing us to continue to operate a unique experience from Sfoglina and serve our guests despite capacity restrictions during these complicated times.”
Arlington has been removing some parking spaces to facilitate the expansion of outdoor dining in two local neighborhoods.
The County Board approved a process for restaurants to apply for expanded, temporary outdoor dining areas in late May. Since then, county crews have blocked off street parking spots in six places to allow pedestrians to better get around the sidewalk cafes.
According to Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services, the repurposed parking spaces are located in the Shirlington and Clarendon areas, including:
- Washington Boulevard between Wilson Blvd and 13th St N, about 2 parking spaces
- Wilson Blvd between N Cleveland St and N Danville St, about 4 parking spaces
- Wilson Blvd between N Hudson St and N Irving St, about 6 parking spaces
- S Campbell St between S Arlington Mill Dr and S Quincy St, all on-street parking spaces
- West side of S Randolph St immediately south of S Campbell St, a few spaces (exact number not available at this time)
- West side of S Quincy St immediately south of S Campbell St (exact number not available at this time)
Crews were seen blocking off the Shirlington parkings areas Monday morning.
DES spokesman Peter Golkin said additional parking spaces may be repurposed as restaurants apply for Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas (TOSAs), though no additional, specific locations are currently planned.
“We are creating pedestrian space around outdoor seating as restaurants apply for outdoor seating,” Golkin said.
Jay Westcott contributed to this report
While Virginia’s reopening continues, not everyone wants to dine indoors at restaurants.
Just today, Texas closed bars and reduced restaurant capacity to stem a recent surge in new coronavirus cases. For those who want to get out of the house and support local restaurants, however, outdoor dining is generally considered to be safe.
ARLnow’s Turquoise Jackson compiled the following list of Arlington restaurants with outdoor dining areas over the past week. Have any additions or updates? Email her at [email protected].
Black Lives Matter Protest Held Saturday — “As protests continue around the nation following the death of George Floyd, the Black Parents of Arlington group welcomed families and neighbors on Saturday for a special gathering and vigil for the man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in May. Over 100 people gathered at Drew Model Elementary School, some bringing signs while others wore shirts and face masks showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.” [WUSA 9]
Dorsey Discusses ‘Defund’ Demands — “‘We’re getting a lot of letters with the ‘defund the police’ calls,’ says [County Board member Christian Dorsey, on the WAMU Politics Hour]. He says that over the past few years, the police budget has only risen slightly above inflation. He said he’d be open to cutting tactical weapons and gear.” [Twitter]
Pentagon Entering ‘Phase 1’ Today — “Pentagon and Pentagon Facilities Employees: This Mon., June 15, begins Phase One of re-entering the buildings. Welcome back! Don’t forget your face covering and to social distance while inside.” [Twitter]
Current COVID-19 Hospitalizations Fall — “Fewer than 1,000 Virginians are now hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19, and the number of cases continued to slow both statewide and in Northern Virginia, according to reports Saturday morning. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association reported only 959 coronavirus patients in state hospitals, the lowest number since the organization began providing data in early April… Only 342 of those patients were in Northern Virginia, down from a high of 818 on April 30.” [InsideNova]
County Expanding Free Wi-Fi Spots — “Arlington residents can now access free Wi-Fi in the parking lots of the Charles Drew Community Center and Barcroft Sports & Fitness Center as part of the County’s ongoing effort to help residents without reliable internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with these two new locations, public Wi-Fi is available via the ArlingtonWireless network in the parking lots at Aurora Hills, Central and Columbia Pike libraries.” [Arlington County]
PTAs to Distribute Face Masks — “County staff from a variety of departments packing up more than 4,300 cloth face covers for [Arlington Public Schools] PTAs to distribute to families. Face covering is required in Virginia public indoor spaces. ” [Twitter]
Restaurants Seek Expanded Outdoor Dining Spaces — “Arlington County has allowed 19 restaurants to add new space for outdoor dining or expand existing options, as part of the growing trend of shifting tables outside and allowing safer dining while the Covid-19 pandemic persists… Through June 9, the county has seen a total of 66 applications and approved just under a third of them.” [Washington Business Journal]
Photo courtesy Jean and James Knaack
As Arlington’s restaurants try to return to some semblance of normalcy during the first phase of reopening, some local restaurants are anxiously awaiting Arlington County approval of temporary outdoor seating permits.
Owners of two eateries along the Columbia Pike corridor, Ethiopian restaurant Dama Pastry & Cafe (1505 Columbia Pike) and Ididos Coffee and Social House (1107 S. Walter Reed Drive) said getting access to outdoor dining is a crucial part of getting business back to normal.
“We are just waiting,” said Hailu Dama, owner of Dama Pastry & Cafe, which has a small parking lot in front of the restaurant, located near the Air Force Memorial. “We applied for outside dining and are waiting for Arlington County. Once that gets approved, we’ll put up tents and have some small space on the side. So far, that’s what we’re thinking about.”
Currently, Dama said his small business needs the boost — opening up an outdoor space would expand their capacity at a critical time.
“It’s just been very slow,” Dama said. “We closed for about a month because of the employees and the whole situation. We reopened three weeks ago and it’s been picking up a little bit, but to get to the point pre-corona… it’s going to take some time.”
Mesfin Demise, a partner in Ididos Coffee and Social House said he’s similarly hoping outdoor dining can help boost slow sales.
“There’s been a little back and forth on outdoor seating,” Demise said. “That has not happened yet, it’s probably a day or two delay. Once we get that permit for temporary outdoor dining, then we should be really great.”
Ididos opened for takeout, Demise said, but as a coffee shop, business had really suffered.
“April was really bad, business-wise,” Demise said. “May picked up, but it’s not back to normal. It was about 20% down from where we used to be. It’s mainly because of the community that we were so close.”
Demise said Columbia Pike neighbors rallied to support local businesses during the pandemic, something for which he’s deeply appreciative.
“With the County approving, hopefully, we can do outdoor seating,” Demise said. “I think that will boost sales. I don’t want to say we’ll go back to normal, but right now it still hurts.”
Even with the permit, though, Demise said the state has still put limitations on outdoor seating that he said business owners should be the ones to set.
“Outdoor seating is 50% of indoor seating,” Demise said. “In our case, we have 13 seats allowed, so we can only do six seats outdoors. That limitation probably hurts, but it’s better than nothing.”
Demise said it took a lot of work, but he’s been able to keep most of his employees and adjust schedules to keep nearly everyone on payroll. He said he’s looking forward to being able to bring people to the restaurant to sit around.
“People loved to sit around the restaurant, so missing that was a big challenge,” Demise said. “Adjusting to simply pouring coffee or lattes and sending them to customers, that’s been very difficult.”
Staff photo by Jay Westcott