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With New Outdoor Dining Rule, Houston Restaurants Take To Parking Lots

It took Houston months longer than other major metros to permit outdoor dining on parking lots, but under Space City's new More Space program, restaurants finally can expand in the open air.

Houston's restaurant scene is continuing to feel the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Losses from the shelter-in-place orders earlier in the year, coupled with the expiration of the Paycheck Protection Program and limited occupancy, has left many business owners struggling to stay open.

In an effort to offset this damage, the city of Houston last week approved a new program that will allow restaurants to expand their footprint into off-street parking.

“Since occupancy is lower during this time, parking spaces can be converted to places to serve customers. It is a win-win,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

The More Space program was created to help restaurants accommodate more customers while maintaining social distancing during the pandemic. Under the new program, any restaurant can convert 50% of its off-street parking spaces to dining space, as long as pandemic-related occupancy restrictions remain in effect.

There is no formal application process for restaurants to participate. However, the city of Houston is encouraging restaurants that decide to utilize their parking lots to fill out a notification form so they can be listed as a participating venue on the website.

“We keep a list of who's participating so that the public can look on it and maybe decide they want to go there because of it,” Houston Chief Transportation Planner David Fields told Bisnow.

Turner and the Houston City Council approved the program on Aug. 5. So far, only three restaurants have submitted a formal notification to the city that they are participating: Phoenix on Westheimer in Montrose, Latin Bites Kitchen in the Tanglewood area and Prego in Rice Village. Fields said the city expects to see more notifications from participating restaurants shortly.

“We're told that there are many who are figuring it out right now to decide if they want to do it. You know, it does require figuring out what your space looks like and teaching your staff how to go out into the parking lot,” Fields said.

Houston is not the only Texan city to get creative with outdoor space during the pandemic. Austin in June introduced its Shop The Block program, which allows restaurants and retail stores to expand into parking lots and sidewalks. In Dallas, restaurants have been permitted since May to build temporary parklets, where the outdoor dining area can be extended into a parking space.

Similar outdoor dining expansion programs exist in major U.S. cities including New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami Beach and Los Angeles.

“Houston City Council, the mayor and multiple departments provided us with an excellent option that’s very easy to implement with a minimum of regulations from the city. Unlike other cities’ programs, Houston’s program does what it’s intended to: help restaurants and our community,” Texas Restaurant Association Regional Executive Director Melissa Stewart told Bisnow.

“As restaurants continue to struggle during the pandemic, programs like More Space are allowing us an opportunity to try and survive until this passes.”

The Breakfast Klub in Midtown, Houston.

It is difficult to tally just how many restaurants have shuttered across the U.S. since pandemic-related shutdowns began to take effect in March. Second-quarter data from Yelp indicated that about 24,000 restaurants nationwide had permanently closed as of June 15, though the true number may be far higher.

TRA has warned that as many as 30% of Texas restaurants could shutter permanently as a result of the economic disruption.

“We know we’ve lost at least 12% of our restaurants as of April. We feel like if we don’t get significant federal help in the form of another PPP and other assistance by the end of the year, we are probably looking at a 30% loss, with the heaviest toll being taken on independent restaurants,” Stewart said.

Amid the carnage, some Houston restaurants chose to adopt more outdoor dining options before the introduction of the More Space program. The Breakfast Klub, a popular comfort food restaurant in Midtown, told Bisnow it implemented outdoor dining expansion into its operations earlier in the year.

Weingarten Realty Senior Vice President Gerald Crump said the retail landlord was an early adopter of outdoor dining initiatives, allowing restaurant tenants to use sidewalks and common areas to expand outdoor dining options. Because of this, the company has not yet received requests from tenants to expand into parking lot areas.

“I believe the current demand, outdoor climate and logistics for most restaurants will limit the utilization of parking lots for many,” Crump said. “We are certainly open to working with our tenants who want to consider this option.”

Some restaurants are already mobilizing to expand outdoor seating into parking lots, even if they haven’t yet applied to the More Space program. Picos Restaurant in the Upper Kirby area announced it will extend its front patio over about five parking spaces, potentially accommodating as many as 75 additional patrons.

“The extended space will be used to make people feel safe and socially distanced. After regulations become more lenient, we will continue to use that new patio extension space later during the holidays, depending on what the situation in our community may present,” Picos Chief Marketing Officer Monica Richards said.

Stewart said TRA is aware of several restaurants exploring the parking lot expansion and pursuing the permitting process with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which takes about 10 days.

“Depending on how long we continue to have capacity limitations put on restaurants due to the pandemic, [that] will likely influence how many other restaurants take advantage of this proposal using the parking lot. If we go into late September, I expect [we] will see it widely expanded,” Stewart said.

H-Town Restaurant Group owner Tracy Vaught noted that some of the company’s restaurants, including Backstreet Café, have large patio areas that are already adequate for patrons. However, smaller restaurants in tight, urban environments could be better candidates to participate in the More Space program.

“They could really use the extra space,” Vaught said.

The METRORail in Downtown Houston.

Houston’s summer weather can be notoriously hot and humid, but there is optimism that the public, tired of being cooped up at home, will embrace the new initiative.

“While it is true it’s hot outside in Houston, we continue to see our patios be utilized. A combination of less restrictions on capacity while maintaining social distance in the public’s higher comfort level dining outside make patios and the expansion with the More Space program ideal,” Stewart said.

Fields said he is looking to work with the city of Houston, the Downtown District and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County to even further expand outdoor dining options along Main Street in Downtown Houston. The initiative would allow restaurants and bars to expand onto the sidewalk and close some of the street to car traffic.

“There are a lot of partners involved, we need to make sure we get it right. So [we will consider] things like the traffic signals on that stretch, which not only are used by people driving or walking but also the light rail,” Fields said.

“We also need to look at things like our sidewalk ordinance, which says what can be out there. They have to figure out what needs to change, just like we did before the More Space program, to allow this.”