Craig Pedersen is the owner of Il Primo along Preston Street in Little Italy. Pedersen is one of several restaurant owners who say they are losing money thanks to increased patio fees. Michael MacKinnon, Centretown News

Little Italy restaurants hurt by new patio fees

By Matthew Horwood

The unseasonably warm September weather has resulted in an extended patio season. But some restaurant owners in Little Italy say the City of Ottawa’s new patio fees are hurting their businesses.

The Prescott and Il Primo were recently forced to tear down portions of their patios so that they wouldn’t have to pay year-round fees to keep them open. A fee change approved by city council in March made the owners responsible for paying a charge for any encroachment on sidewalks throughout the winter.

The Preston Street BIA originally approached the City of Ottawa in 2011 to seek relief from the normal permit fees for outdoor patios, which were deemed too high. The city enacted a bylaw regulating right of way patios on city roadways in April. The summer rate was lowered to $22.76 per square metre per month, which the city described as a reduction of 22 per cent from the previous rate.

However, the city also eliminated the over-wintering permit — which had allowed business owners to leave structures in place year-round — and replaced it with a winter fee. Both the Prescott and Il Primo chose to dismantle their patios, at significant cost, rather than over-winter.

Il Primo was one of four businesses that had enjoyed a boulevard rate, which was half the regular patio fee to compensate for building the structure above unusable ground. Last year, the city took that discounted fee away, as well.

“They gave me one day’s notice last year, in 2016, to tell me my boulevard rate had been eliminated. My rates went from $4,400 to $9,600 overnight,” said Craig Pedersen, owner of Il Primo.

Il Primo’s patio used to seat 46 people, but in 2016 the owner cut it down to 22 in order to save money on fees. According to Pedersen, the city was collecting $4,400 in patio fees before the changes, but now it is only taking in $2,500.

“It’s been there since 2001, and it’s been approved by architects and the City of Ottawa,” Pedersen said of the patio. “But a week later I get a letter from the building inspectors department saying I don’t have a permit for this, so they shut us down.”

As a result, Il Primo couldn’t open its summer patio to customers until the restaurant had acquired the proper permits and licences. By the time the patio was approved it was late September 2016, and Pedersen was only able to operate the space legally for three days.

This summer was better for Il Primo, but it still had to close its patio down at the beginning of September, meaning a whole month of great weather for outdoor dining was lost.

Il Primo is not the only business that has been hit by encroachment and winter fees. To avoid its own encroachment fee, the Prescott tore down what it had intended to be a permanent, raised patio in order to build a ground-level structure that could be removed and reinstalled with each change of season.

The Prescott chose to close its patio for all of September to avoid year-round fees, meaning it, too, missed out on the extended patio season.

“It’s not economically feasible to spend that much money for such a short patio season. They are making life very difficult for small businesses,” Prescott owner Tony Discipio told CTV News in a recent interview.

Court Curry, the city’s manager of right of way, heritage and urban design services, said the daily rate was becoming an administrative burden for both the city and restaurant owners. “It was felt this was an appropriate saw-off (compromise) by moving towards a monthly rate,” Curry has told CBC News.

The City of Ottawa held public consultations with business owners in Little Italy, but Pedersen called it a farce. “It was the same thing when I spoke to transportation committee at City Hall; I got nothing but lip service,” he said.

The Preston Street BIA declined to comment on the issue.

Pedersen claims that the City of Ottawa fees are hurting small business owners.

“The irony of what’s happening here,” Pedersen said, “is that through draconian measures the city has created a situation where they are actually going to be generating less revenue than if they had left it alone.”

City staff are reviewing the impacts of the fee changes, and are expected to submit a report to city council in the new year.