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October 05, 2017

Philly cracks down on restaurants violating sidewalk café laws

Alfresco dining has seen an incredible boom in Philadelphia over the past 15 years, a phenomenon best illustrated by this map of Center City's restaurants with outdoor seating. As of last summer, we had 372 restaurants with a combined 5,579 outdoor seats in Center City — good for a 439 percent increase since 2001.

This is obviously big business for restaurants. The cost of skirting some of the city's sidewalk laws is far lower than the benefit many of them get from seating more guests.

We now have evidence that lots of restaurants are unbothered by the risk, thanks to a review released this week by City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

Inspectors visited 363 establishments throughout various sections of the city to check for compliance with the Sidewalk Café Law, whose codes are enforced by the Streets Department and the Department of Licenses & Inspections.

Among the restaurants and cafés covered by the inspections, 113 establishments had code violations or lacked up-to-date licenses.

“We have city codes in place to ensure that establishments do not create unsafe areas for diners and pedestrians,” Butkovitz said. “Sidewalk cafés are a wonderful addition for many bars and restaurants, providing a boost for our local economy. It is unfortunate that some do not follow the law."

The scofflaw restaurants had a total of 218 violations of seven city codes. These included chairs and tables sitting on ventilation grates, cafés in pedestrian travel and furniture too close to the street or transit area. Nearly 50 restaurants had outdoor seating without a valid license.

“We found instances where establishments were cited, but they continued to operate with the same violations,” Butkovitz said. “While violators might pay the nominal fee every so often, the fines alone do not appear to be enough of a deterrent.”

The fine for each citation is $75, with an additional $180 penalty for those without a valid license. Between both, Butkovitz said, the city lost $25,170 in revenue.

To improve compliance, the controller's audit recommends consideration of tougher code enforcement used in cities like Sarasota, where officials can revoke outdoor seating permits in the name of public safety and even seize furniture until all fines have been paid in full. Philadelphia's fines could also escalate for repeat offenders.

“Ultimately, we want our establishments with outdoor seating to thrive throughout our city," Butkovitz said. "But, more importantly, we need to them operate in a safe manner.”