Toronto is looking to relaunch a bigger version of its popular pop-up patio program, with struggling local businesses getting access to more outdoor space as early as May.
The program, called CaféTO, made it easier last year to get approval for sidewalk patios. In many places, it turned the curb lane over to nearby restaurants and bars left hurting by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It made our city shine,” said Nico Dagnino, managing director of the restaurant and grocer Eataly. “What we saw [last] summer was a whole other Toronto.”
City figures show that 801 businesses were part of the CaféTO program last year. About three-quarters of the participating restaurants used the curb lane for their temporary patios. However, the program wrapped up as the weather became colder and the pandemic worsened, which eventually caused all patios to be shuttered.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said Wednesday that staff have been working to reboot the program and will be accepting applications within weeks. Dependent on a positive trend in bringing down COVID-19 numbers, new patios could be appearing in curb lanes before the May long weekend.
“This very successful program to support restaurants with more outdoor dining options will be bigger and better than ever,” Mr. Tory told reporters in a virtual briefing before a meeting of his cabinet-like executive committee.
“It is welcomed by the industry and we know that residents loved this program as well. I think it improved the quality of life of our city overall.”
City employees have worked to streamline the application process. The staff report setting the groundwork for this year’s program says there will be more leeway for patio structures, including “temporary decks, platforms and fencing.”
The cost of this year’s program is projected at around $1.3-million in staff and consultant costs, as well as grants earmarked for “café enhancement.” The program is expected to lead to an approximately $2.5-million reduction in parking revenues, in line with last year’s drop.
The city is also looking at relaunching its ActiveTO program, which involves closing parts of some roads to automobiles and turning the space over to people on foot and bicycle. Construction projects may affect some of the roads that were included last year, but Mr. Tory said the program could be expanded into new parts of the city.
A city survey of participating restaurants found the on-street patios popular with business owners. Approximately two-thirds of those responding to the survey said their businesses would not have been viable last year without the extra space provided by the CaféTO program.
“We are delighted … that CaféTO will be back this coming year,” said John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, which counts 84 BIAs as members.
Last year’s program evolved as it went along. In September, council decided to loosen the rules around operating heaters on the patios. And in October, council voted to extend the program deep into the autumn. But dreams of keeping the patios into the winter were scuttled by city staff, who said doing so would interfere with snow clearing.
Concerns about snow, and also cold, led to pandemic-related temporary patios being removed in many cities. But not all. Chicago ran a contest looking for ideas to make outdoor winter dining viable. And New York allowed restaurants to keep their new patios into the winter. Some continued to attract patrons as temperatures fell below freezing, with heavy clothes and personal heaters becoming de rigueur.
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