Report: Huge growth for Center City outdoor seating

Every spring when the weather starts to warm up, it always seems like there are more restaurants with outdoor seating than the year before, and a new report confirms that’s no illusion.

The number of Center City food establishements with outdoor seating increased by 429% since 2001, according to some new survey research from Center City District and the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation.

When CCD began surveying this trend in 2001, there were just 69 establishments with al fresco accommodations, and that number grew to 365 by summer of 2015, increasing by 12% in just the past year. 

Growth of outdoor seating
(Center City District)

The types of businesses participating in that trend are mostly the ones you’d expect: 50% are full-service restaurants, 22% are take-out locations, and 11% are at coffee shops. CCD also flags an emerging trend of non-food establishments with outdoor seating, like hair salons, clothing stores, and cigar stores. All told, Center City businesses now have 412 outdoor seating areas with the capacity to seat 6,056 people.  

Street seating was first legalized in 1995 for Center City businesses by the Rendell administration, but outside of Center City, the Councilmanic Prerogative tradition is in full effect, and the law still requires District Councilmembers to introduce special legislation to approve each application, adding an additional layer of process to win approval.

Changes in number of total outdoor seating locations by district
(Center City District)

Center City District wants to see street seating continue to grow though, arguing that it enhances the street energy and retail business climate.

“Outdoor seating attracts more patrons by blurring the boundary between inside and out, expands seating capacity for businesses, enhances safety by adding more “eyes on the street” and reinforces the image of a thriving downtown,” the reports says. “The increased use of wireless technology also facilitates working or networking socially while sitting outside.”

What types of conditions support growth in street seating facilities? CCD says mixed-use places with restaurant clusters are the natural fit, though more traditional office buildings have been sprucing up their outdoor plazas with beer gardens and other placemaking changes meant to humanize those spaces:

“Outdoor seating thrives where mixed-use buildings predominate. Thus, 81% of the 412 total outdoor seating locations are located south of Market Street. However, by counting the seats located on office building plazas, even without adjacent food options, the percent of total seats counted north of Market Street increased from 19% in 2014 to 32% in 2015. Old City, the West Market Office District, Rittenhouse Square and Parkway Museums District have shown the greatest increase in the number of outdoor seating locations from 2013 to 2015. The increases in Rittenhouse Square and Old City are likely tied to these areas’ continuing growth as retail and dining centers. On the other hand, increases in the Parkway Museums and West Office Market Districts suggest that outdoor seating is becoming an important amenity in parts of the downtown where it was previously less common.”

Check out the full report for more facts, analysis, and graphics from Center City District.

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