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Street Food: Cities Turn Parking Spaces Into Dining Spots And No One Seems To Mind

Danielle Renzulli, owner of 12 Steps Down Bar in Philadelphia, poses by the tables she has set up in what used to be parking spots. She was expecting some negative reactions from neighbors, given how valuable parking is in the area, but to her surprise, she received no complaints.
Danielle Renzulli, owner of 12 Steps Down Bar in Philadelphia, poses by the tables she has set up in what used to be parking spots. She was expecting some negative reactions from neighbors, given how valuable parking is in the area, but to her surprise, she received no complaints.

In crowded cities, finding street parking can be a bit of a sport. In South Philly, it's almost a religion.

And like in many communities across America, a reliable wave of outrage greets proposals to reduce street parking — whether it's for bike lanes, bikeshare stands or green space.

But something strange happened this summer.

Just ask Randy Rucker, the chef and owner of River Twice on East Passyunk Ave. The restaurant placed tables in the street where as many as four cars used to squeeze in, in a neighborhood where every parking spot is prized.

Rucker was ready to deal with the backlash. But to his surprise, there was none.

"No one's knocking on my door cussing at me," Rucker said. "It's been a positive experience so far, believe it or not."

At the 12 Steps Down Bar, two parking spaces are blocked off with wooden barriers, tall reeds and strings of lights.
/ Hannah Yoon for NPR
At the 12 Steps Down Bar, two parking spaces are blocked off with wooden barriers, tall reeds and strings of lights.

He's not alone. Scores of cities around the world dramatically shifted their policies to encourage outdoor dining, which public health officials say is much safer than gathering indoors.

In Philadelphia, more than 400 businesses have taken advantage of a program allowing them to set up tables in parking spots.

And the typical frustration over parking changes has simply not materialized.

"There's been a lot of tolerance for things that are unusual," said Mike Carroll, the city's deputy managing director for transportation, infrastructure, and sustainability. "Residents have not complained in a big way about this."

The lack of outrage might be partly due to the lack of traffic. According to mapping company TomTom, Philadelphia's streets are about half as congested as they were pre-pandemic.

"It would be a different story if people were moving their car more often and trying to find parking, and were fighting for those parking spots," said Richard Shephard, as he sat in a converted parking spot at the South Philly restaurant Flannel. "But since they pretty much are stationary at this point in time, I don't think people are too upset by it."

Customers sit and eat in a converted parking spot outside of Flannel, a restaurant in Philadelphia.
/ Hannah Yoon for NPR
Customers sit and eat in a converted parking spot outside of Flannel, a restaurant in Philadelphia.

But even people who aredriving and who still feel frustration over parking aren't protesting against the restaurant expansions. One big reason why: They know the pandemic poses an existential threat to local restaurants.

Marc Grika, the owner of Flannel, said his quickly built patio has slowed the bleeding for his business. "On a busy weekend, like when it's not raining, we can even break even — which is really a thrill," he said, with a rueful laugh.

Residents are well aware of what's at stake.

"It is a nuisance," said Brian Persons, as he sat at a table set up in the road by the restaurant Pistolas Del Sur, a few blocks away. "As a parker, it does take up spots. But I'm grateful .... that we can dine and we can help make them survive."

Left: Owner and chef of Flannel, Marc Grika, stands by his restaurant. Right: Co-owner and chef of Pistolas Del Sur, Adan Trinidad, poses outside his restaurant. Having extra tables has helped keep business owners afloat during really tough times.
/ Hannah Yoon for NPR
Left: Owner and chef of Flannel, Marc Grika, stands by his restaurant. Right: Co-owner and chef of Pistolas Del Sur, Adan Trinidad, poses outside his restaurant. Having extra tables has helped keep business owners afloat during really tough times.

The next challenge for Philadelphia, like many other cities, is to figure out how to sustain outdoor dining through the frigid winter and even into next year.

And after that? Many local leaders are hoping that the current willingness to repurpose parking could lead to long-term changes in how street space is allocated, as some bike and pedestrian advocates, as well as city planners, have long pushed for.

"I hope that this gives Philadelphians the opportunity to view some of these changes that they've been a little bit afraid of and to enjoy them and to see how vibrant they can make our city," said Jamie Gauthier, a member of the Philadelphia city council and an urban planner by trade.

Danielle Renzulli, who owns a bar called 12 Steps Down just north of the Italian Market, was initially hesitant to expand into the street. It wasn't just resident outrage she was worried about; nearby businesses also value the fact that there are spaces where their customers can park.

But after she set up her tables, surrounded by a reed barrier and decorated with strings of lights, she hasn't received a single complaint. "Actually, I've gotten a lot of compliments on it," she said.

"We all probably imagine the worst," she added. "And it was not bad at all. "

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Customers eat outside at Sabrina's Cafe in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2020.
/ Hannah Yoon for NPR
Customers eat outside at Sabrina's Cafe in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2020.