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In B.C. and Alberta, regulators show signs of overcoming patio paranoia

Rostizado’s patio allows an unparalleled view of several dozen vintage neon signs in the Neon Sign Museum across the street.

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Vancouverites are convinced their city is the most patio-obsessed in the country. After all, people will sit outside all year long, even when it's raining.

"We love to be outdoors," said Peter Raptis, co-owner of the Pawn Shop on Granville Street, a taco-and-tequila joint whose patio is packed from opening to closing.

Ha, that's nothing, said Wayne Jones in Edmonton. The operator of the Cask and Barrel near the city's new arena says that, because patio season in that northern city is more limited, people are even more determined to be outside whenever possible. There's even a Polar Patio Club (him and a few diehards) who have sat outside as late as Oct. 31 and as early as February.

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"Every opportunity somebody gets, they take it," he said.

For people such as Mr. Jones and Mr. Raptis, along with hundreds of other bar and restaurant operators in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere in Western Canada, the stumbling block has been rule-bound government regulators who have seemed determined to throw a wet blanket on patio culture.

In both British Columbia and Alberta, agencies have required that all patios serving alcohol be surrounded by enclosures or railings to keep patrons corralled in a defined space.

"We have this approach that drinking has to be done in a penitentiary-style setting," said Bert Hick, with Vancouver-based Rising Tide Consultants, who works as an adviser and lobbyist for bars and restaurants going through the maze of city and provincial permitting.

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But those last-century attitudes appear to be changing, at least a little.

Just last month, the Alberta government announced it would be loosening up its rules about patios, allowing, for example, more flexibility in the design of the enclosure to make them more appealing – until recently, planters were not allowed as an option for the required barrier.

In Vancouver, city staff are planning a patio review this fall, aimed at "how to take a great patio culture and make it better," said Jennifer Sheel, the city's manager for street activities.

The city is going to look at everything from whether there's a way to adjust the requirement for railings on large patios to improving the design with lighting and planters to allowing "streateries" – serving spaces for bars and restaurants that are built out into the street, she said.

That would allow operations that don't have land for a patio or enough room in front of them on the city sidewalk to gain some space by taking over a couple of parking spaces in front of their business.

Mr. Raptis would also like to see back-lane patios in his area.

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"That could be a possibility," Ms. Sheel said.

The sudden unshackling has come as a relief to many business organizations and restaurateurs who have been fighting the rules for decades, trying to get Canada's Western cities to foster the kind of patio culture that is taken for granted in some Eastern cities and in many European ones.

"We've certainly been waiting many years to catch up with places like Europe," said Ian O'Donnell, executive director of Edmonton's Downtown Business Association, and an enthusiastic patio user.

He and others say they assume that the sudden embrace of patios by government bureaucrats is a result of many years of pressure, along with a realization that other cities are loosening regulations without any apparent massive breakdown in social order.

"I think there's been pressure on the various jurisdictions to keep up with the Joneses," Mr. O'Donnell said.

Charles Gauthier, director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, said many cities in North America have come to see patios as an asset: Philadelphia uses its patio count as an indicator of economic health.

As downtown planners and business groups have increasingly focused on transforming their postindustrial cities into entertainment and tourist zones with attractions like sports stadiums, food trucks, food markets and festivals, patios have become part of the branding effort.

But the change has been slow in coming and many businesses are still frustrated at the wary attitudes of bureaucrats.

In Vancouver, Keenan Hood, general manager and partner at the stylish Keefer Bar, says it's maddening that his operation is restricted to 12 outdoor seats. That's because it's designated as a liquor-primary operation, not a food-primary one.

The city relaxed some of those rules in June, allowing bars to have the same number of seats outside as restaurants – except in Chinatown (where Mr. Hood's bar is), the Downtown Eastside and Granville Street.

There, bars are still restricted when it comes to patio seats. On Granville Street, police have said they're concerned about drunk patrons using outdoor seating as weapons. In the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown, the prevailing staff concern is about not adding liquor-serving seats in an area that has so many people with substance-abuse issues.

But owners say those reasons are baffling. More patio seats on the street make those streets safer, they say. "The more people you put on your streets, I think it helps curb the behaviour you don't want," said Mr. Raptis of the Pawn Shop in Vancouver.

For bar owners, there is another advantage. The more patio seats they have, the more money they make. People want to sit in them, and patios act as advertising for the business.

"I'd rather spend the money on building a beautiful patio than $30,000-$40,000 on marketing," said Mr. Jones of Edmonton's Cask and Barrel. "They're a great promotional tool."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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