Something new has been added to the rejuvenation of Old Town Theater — sidewalk tables and chairs.
"We were the first to apply for and receive a permit to offer outdoor dining under the council's new program for King Street," said Roger Fons, owner, Old Town Theater. "Our customers are really enjoying it. Now they have a choice."
On Sept. 28, City Council passed an ordinance for a pilot program "to allow up to 20 outdoor seats for restaurants along King Street and the first block of side streets," according to a letter to Old Town restaurateurs signed by Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning.
"The program begins immediately and will run through Dec. 31, 2004. A more permanent program will be set up after the winter with the adoption of the King Street Retail Strategy," she said in her Sept. 29 letter.
"We'll be serving lunch and dinner at our outdoor seating as well as in the theater. The ABC people are coming to inspect and will determine if we can also serve alcoholic beverages outside. But, we only serve beer and wine anyway," Fons said. "This has definitely helped with our business."
That was evident by the reaction from two regular lunch customers enjoying the bright fall weather last Wednesday seated at one of the cocktail-type high tables along the curb in front of the theater.
"I love it. I've been coming here since Roger reopened the theater to have lunch and this makes it even better. It's a great break from work," said Jonathan Lawhead of Alexandria.
"This also makes it a great place to people gaze," said Tim Miller, a resident of Tocoma Park, Md., who works in Alexandria.
THE NEW PROGRAM will allow eating establishments to offer sidewalk cafe style dining from the river to the King Street Metro Station and for one block off King Street, both north and south, on all intersecting streets. City staff had requested "expedited administrative approval" according to a memorandum from City Manager Philip Sunderland dated Sept. 23, 2004.
"This proposal is designed to enhance the economic and social viability of this important thoroughfare and to replicate on a daily basis the festive environment of this year's Fall Arts Festival," Sunderland wrote.
"The recommendation stems from the success of the outdoor dining at the recent Arts festival and from deliberations by the King Street Retail Advisory Committee whose function has been to help identify ways in which the City can assist businesses in this area," he said.
Comparing Alexandria's outdoor dining proposal to other competing areas such as Shirlington, Sunderland wrote, "Increasingly downtown areas, life-style centers and neighborhood retail areas are offering outdoor restaurant dining. If Alexandria restaurants are to remain competitive outdoor dining is a key ingredient."
An integral part of the King Street Retail Study was to compare various elements of the revitalization plan to surrounding areas such as Shirlington, Pentagon City, and Ballston. One of the stimulus items cited was the offering of outdoor dining.
This facet of the study was also cited in the confrontation earlier this past summer between restaurateurs and the Alexandria Health Department over the juxtaposition of outdoor dining and dogs. The Health Department has been silent on this latest experiment.
The program has established a series of conditions restaurant owners must adhere to in order to receive approval of their application. These include the following:
* The application must include a dimensional plan for outside dining that depicts the location and size of the seating area, and width of the sidewalk. The plan will also illustrate the number of chairs, tables, and any other improvements.
* Any proposed changes in the plan must be approved by the city through a revised application.
* Hours of service for outdoor dining can be anytime between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. seven days a week consistent with any previously approved restaurant hours.
* The total number of seats (both outdoor and indoor) shall not exceed the restaurant's previously approved maximum number of seats by more than 20.
* The outside dining area shall be located on the public sidewalk in front of the restaurant property. It may be located adjacent to the building or near the curb.
* At least five feet of corridor space must be maintained past the outside dining area for sidewalk pedestrian traffic. “We believe that this will give sufficient space for pedestrians to pass easily on the public sidewalk,” said Fogarty.
* All improvements used in the outdoor dining area must be temporary in nature.
* No food preparation is permitted in the outside dining area.
* Loudspeakers outside are prohibited and sound from inside the restaurant must not be audible in the outside dining area.
As for serving alcoholic beverages in the outdoor dining area, the application states that is a matter between the restaurateur and the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). However, if alcoholic beverages are served in such areas the following requirements apply, according to the application information form:
* The dining area must have a sturdy enclosure.
* There must be only one well defined entrance to the outdoor dining area.
* Customers are not permitted to carry their own alcohol to the outdoor dining area.
* The dining area must have adequate illumination during the evening hours.
As stated by Sunderland in his memorandum, "Over the next three months, staff [Planning Department] will be assessing the program's effectiveness, and determining whether and how it should be implemented on a long term basis. The long term outdoor dining program will be a component of the implementation of the King Street Retail Strategies Plan and will come forward early this winter."
“THIS IS JUST another way to bring more vibrancy to King Street,” said Mayor William D. Euille. “We are responding to the requests of our business owners and to many citizens who enjoyed dining outdoors on King Street during our recent arts festival.”
Restaurants interested in participating need to complete a one-page application form, which can be found on the city’s Web site or in the Planning and Zoning office.
The pilot program has the support of the business community. On behalf of the Old Town Business Association and KISMET, Charlotte Hall said, “We believe that this will increase the vitality of King Street and bring even more business to Old Town.”
The staff is also supportive. “We have been hearing about the desire for more outdoor dining on King Street as part of the King Street retail study and welcome the opportunity for this pilot program,” said Fogarty.
Outdoor dining has proven successful on Mt. Vernon Avenue. “Almost every restaurant on Mt. Vernon Avenue has outdoor seating and it has been very successful,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka. “I would expect the same to be true of King Street.”