Chow Promises Better Patio Season For 2024

The CaféTO program took off in 2020 as a way to help restaurants stay in business while complying with COVID-19 restrictions that hampered indoor dining. Beginning in the spring and continuing through the fall, the CaféTO initiative makes it possible for restaurants and bars to establish larger outdoor spaces on sidewalks and in curb lanes.

So far, the the CaféTO initiative has had its ups and downs. In 2022, it set a major hallmark by being responsible for over $200 million worth of economic benefits to the city, with bars and restaurants being major recipients of these benefits. This development resulted in an increase in support for the initiative, with more than 1000 businesses supporting it.

The difficulties and challenges of 2023

Unfortunately, the tale was slightly different in 2023; last year saw a lot of bar owners and restaurants complain about the lack of organization that caused delays in commencing the initiative for that year. The programme became permanent in 2023, but was riddled with tedious approval processes and delays, causing some businesses to remain unregistered far into the month of June.

CaféTO invariably became one of the talking points in the mayoral race last year, and Olivia Chow vowed to make it easier and faster to get patio approvals.

Mayor Chow’s promise of improvement

Mayor Chow apologized for the messy situation surrounding the implementation of CaféTO in 2023 and identified some of the key complaints. There was a lack of adequate staffing at that time, which in turn affected the processing of applications, as well as complaints that the design process was cumbersome and complicated. Chow further acknowledged that the planning committee was cut across three departments, which in turn made the process cumbersome and messy. Future events would be managed by one team in the Transportation Department.

In Calgary the patio application process happens one time and is good for three years. Plus all fees have been waived each year since the initiative has been in place. And the government has worked closely with restaurant owners to ensure that program works. Maybe something Toronto could draw inspiration from in the future.

Projected improvements from 2023 include fast-track approvals for returning restaurants and bars, an easier registration process for new restaurants, and an earlier application time projected for mid-January 2024. By mid-April 2024, at least 90% of eligible new applicants should be approved, according to the mayor, and by the Victoria Day long weekend, at least 90% of confirmed CafeTO curb-lane patios should be operational.

So how’s it going so far?

Heading into its second permanent year, CafeTO kicked off on a good start in 2024, opening up applications for new restaurants as early as the 15th of January. This is an obvious improvement compared to the application time for 2023, which commenced in February. With the promise of a more seamless process that will effectively deal with the issues of 2023, the department has acknowledged the complaints of business owners and consulted with them to try to resolve any lingering issues. This all falls within plans to bolster BIAs around Ontario.

Getting a permit in 2023 costs $14.56 per square meter for sidewalk patios and $43.70 per square meter for curb lane patios. The application fee was $285. For the 2024 program, these fees will be doubled.

So far, the feedback has been promising, with about 220 restaurants and bars that participated last year already receiving their pre-approval notices. Furthermore, Barbara Gray, the General Manager of Toronto’s Transportation Department, highlighted the fact that the registration process for previous participants is easier as they already have the infrastructure and necessary tools to set up their patios in line with existing regulations. In her words, “We don’t need to redo all of the safety setups [and] traffic control plans. Those are already something they can use again, and they can take advantage of that and make it a much more streamlined process.”

In addition to pre-approvals, the city says it has made online registration easier to use and has taken on more staff to help businesses as they go through the process. Gray projects that by Victoria Day weekend in May, 90% of the businesses that want to partake in the program should be set up citywide.

The collective response of restaurants and bars is generally positive. Streetside restaurants are looking to maximize the summer season and have expressed their appreciation for the responsive nature of CaféTO this year. As the Toronto Star stated last week, “By advocating for the city, Toronto’s mayor delivered a master class in playing it smart and getting results.”

They were talking about Chow’s handling of Ottawa, let’s hope that extends to our city’s patios as well.

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