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Decision on allowing winter patios on Baker Street could overcome COVID climate for business

Timothy Schafer
By Timothy Schafer
November 19th, 2020

Snow might not be the only new thing appearing on the downtown Nelson landscape in the next few weeks.

The city is considering the potential for “winter patios” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the winter season. Parts of the city’s business community have inquired about the possibility of creating a pilot winter patio program in order to increase restricted seating capacity.

Although there wasn’t a majority of interest from the 20 outdoor summer patio operators — there were around six — the smaller number would adequate for a test run on how the idea would work, said city senior planner Sebastien Arcand in his report to council.

Out of those six, three are located on the street and the other three are located in amenity spaces.

“Ultimately, the goal was to keep downtown vibrant, to really bring people out, and offset the effects of COVID-19,” he said.

However, some of the operators wanted to make an enclosure and heat it, making it less of a patio and more of an expansion to their business. Arcand said Public Works could not guarantee damage would not occur to the structures in moving snow this winter.

Allowing amenity spaces to be used for winter patios is a low-risk option to explore, he added.

“As not all businesses have the benefit of fronting an amenity space, there might be opportunities to have small sidewalk patios that would allow for patrons to be outside in their outerwear and enjoy a beverage and snacks,” he said.

“These can be small enough that they can be dismantled and installed on a daily basis, or removed for snow clearing.”

Arcand said the recommendation was to not allow patios on the street, but on the sidewalk.

“We are having this conversation because we are looking at ways to help people through a tough time,” explained Mayor John Dooley. “Having said that, there are areas of risk to the municipality and to the taxpayers of the city, so we have to take that into account.”

In June council amended the Sidewalk Café Bylaw to help businesses as they adapted to covid-19 health protocols. The amendment allowed restaurants to expand their outdoor seating areas and provided financial relief by waiving sidewalk patio fees.

At the time the bylaw was drafted, special consideration was given to ensure that the public realm in the downtown — including sidewalks, streets, amenity spaces, on-street parking — remained a space that was shared by all.

Coun. Brittny Anderson liked the idea of offering exterior spaces downtown.

“Because it would be a pilot I would think we consider waiving fees this year,” she said.

“(Patios) might be full all winter or it might be barely used.”

Arcand said the initial look at the bylaw was to introduce the idea of winter patios in Nelson, start a dialogue and see where it went.

Winter patio considerations

City staff analyzed the implications of allowing sidewalk cafés to operate during the winter.

Building safety

• Roof structures need to be designed to manage snow loads;

• If the structure is fully enclosed, it technically becomes a building and will not meet the Building Code;

• Fire Department has concerns with fully enclosed structures as the heating source may not be properly vented; and

• Gas lines running over public property to accommodate heaters would be subject to separate approvals. Consideration needs to be given to other possible safety issues.

— Source: City of Nelson

The café operators would be required to sign a waiver to ensure that the city is not liable for any damages to structures due to snow removal operation.

No bylaw amendments are required under the proposed scenario. Should a sidewalk patio application be approved by council, a licence of occupation agreement will be required as per the City of Nelson Temporary License of Occupation Policy.

“Unless council wishes to allow for businesses to occupy on-street parking, no changes would be required to the bylaw at this time,” said Arcand.

Interested businesses would need to make an application to council to extend their operating timeframe for the year.

Other municipalities

Arcand noted that many other municipalities were contemplating allowing winter patios as a way to adapt to covid-19.

However, the details of how they will work is different in each municipality, he explained.

“For example, Calgary won’t allow patios that are located on the sidewalk or street once the snow starts falling, but will allow them on private property. On the other hand, Vancouver will allow them on public property subject to specific regulations such as allowing only two sides to be covered by curtains. They will also allow heaters,” he wrote in his report to council.

The options

  1. Patios located on the street would create complications. On-street patios are not designed to withstand winter clearing operations. Without any type of project along the street side, patios could be damaged.
  2. Amenity space and sidewalks don’t present as many challenges in regard to snow clearing. Use of amenity spaces allows for pedestrian movement and promotes an active downtown.

“Some restaurants have awnings and canopies that can be used for shelter, while sidewalks are of varying width but there is likely room for most to set-up a temporary barrier with bar type standing only tables, which could also be used as over-flow for when customers are waiting for a table inside the establishment,” said Arcand in his report to council.

There should be a two-metre wide unobstructed path to ensure efficient pedestrian movements, he explained.

A hot topic

In terms of heating, the current bylaw is silent, said Arcand.

However, several patio operators use propane heaters to allow fall outdoor seating. “There are other options that would be more sustainable,” said Arcand. “For example, a local business that is interested in operating a winter patio in amenity space is considering giving blankets to patrons to keep them warm.”

Other technologies such as heated seat cushions are also a consideration.

“The city also needs to consider that Nelson is popular with outdoor enthusiasts that have the know-how and the equipment to stay warm,” said Arcand. “We could, with the help of the business community, create a movement where patrons bring their own blankets, seat cushions or just wear their ski outfit.”

— Source: City of Nelson

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