Cafés Wastefully ‘Warm Sparrows in Winter’

Some 6000 Parisian café owners are on a heated collision course with Paris City Hall over plans to ban (butane-fired) patio gas heaters.

Climate warming hits pavement cafes in Paris (photo:Xavi Talled – FlickrCC)

The patio heaters are used outdoors by sidewalk cafés to warm their winter customers – many of whom are hardened nicotine addicts who also claim the right to coffee and a newspaper in the best traditions of the Paris café.

The largest union of cafés and restaurants in the Paris region, Synhorcat, has set up a Facebook page to “save our sidewalk cafés” and circulated a round robin to Paris City Councillors signed by its powerful members which include the owners of some of the capital’s most prestigious and historically famous cafés – establishments they stress, that are a hallmark in the capital, an invaluable tourist attraction and part of the patrimoine of Paris.

Meanwhile on the sidelines are neighbourhood action groups such as Actionbarbes sniping at the increasing café encroachment on the sidewalks. The neighbourhood groups say apart from navigational obstacles for mothers pushing prams and the disabled in wheelchairs, the levels of night time noise disturbance caused by customers on café terraces is seriously affecting residents.

New licensing guidelines released by City Hall will:
– Ban use of gas heaters deeming the famous minibraséros too polluting. Cafés must install alternative electrical heating systems within 2 years.
– phase out plastic shields: The plastic shields deployed in winter by cafés to protect customers from cold winds, are considered unsightly and must be replaced by more permanent and costly glass and metal structures.
– set a minimum unimpeded pavement width: 1.60m will be the minimum width required for pedestrians and strollers to walk unimpeded. If this space is not respected, the outdoor terrace will not be authorised.
– call for a prominent display of closing hours: Every council licensing permit must already be prominently displayed on the café facade and closing times will now also be included.

City Hall’s green lobby says: “heating the outdoors and warming sparrows in winter” with environmentally unfriendly butane gas is foolish. Café owners retort it will be far more damaging to the city’s economy if they are forced to shut heated sidewalk terraces in winter.

Denis Maupin, a Green councillor said: “Today we must deal with climate disruption and preserve depleting energy sources such as oil and gas that are increasingly more expensive. Heating outside in winter, is absurd and ridiculous!”

According to a report in le Journal du Dimanche citing Synhorcat, Paris has 9,500 sidewalk terraces, of which 45% are heated. Since the 2008 ban on smoking inside enclosed premises was introduced, smokers have taken refuge on mainly heated terraces and the number of such terraces has increased 8.5%, according to Paris City Hall.

Heated Paris sidewalk cafes in winter have breathed new life into the trade.

The council insists however these gas heaters are polluting and eco-unfriendly. Taking up the café owners’ cause, conservative UMP members of Paris City Council are calling for a comparative study on pollution produced by gas and electric heaters.

The council proposal is that even when replaced, the electric alternatives will attract a variable license fee. Lyne Cohen-Solal Paris deputy mayor for traders and licensing said: “A license for an unprotected heated terrace will be more expensive than a sheltered heated terrace”.

In 2008 the number of plastic shielded outdoor terraces in Paris almost doubled, generating opposition from the Vivre Paris network (slogan:
‘For the right to sleep at night and freely stroll in the day) which called them “unsightly and dangerous to the visually impaired.”

In a separate report on the clash, Rue99 (a digital newspaper sympathetic to leftwing causes and to Bertrand Delanoë, 61, mayor of Paris who since March 2001 has headed the left-wing Socialist, Green and Communist alliance that took control of the council for the first time since the 1871 Paris Commune) slammed the move. It described the initiative as: “symptomatic of an ideological vision of ecology that is disconnected from financial, economic and social reality. It is a strange ecological strategy for Paris, to encourage electrical heaters when in France 80% of this electricity is generated by nuclear power.”

Here is Bertrand Delanoë at the opening in 2008 of 104 – Le Centquatre, an arts centre:

Didier Chenet president of Synhorcat, said: “The pavement terraces are an integral part of our trade. If they are removed we lose 25 -30% of revenue and one in three jobs in the industry will go.”

One angry Paris café owner, Frederick Gueze of Rivolux café suggested an alternative would be for Paris City Hall to offer terrace customers blankets. “In Sweden and Norway café users put rugs around their knees or shoulders to keep warm”, he said.

In a letter to councillors Synhorcat wrote: “ADEME (Agence de l’Environment and Energy Management) notes that demand for peak hour electrical energy needs is provided by fossil power plants. During periods of high energy demands (which is when the cafés will be using them), electrical heating is twice as polluting as gas heating: 500 to 600 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (kWh) are generated by electric heating, against 274 grams for butane, and 234 grams for natural gas.”

The union warned of collateral economic and social damage saying that since the increase in the number of warmed terraces from 1998, turnover and hiring by cafés, hotels and restaurants in Paris as elsewhere in France has improved more strongly and consistently than other sectors of the economy. It cites statistics from INSEE the national institute of statistics, showing that maintenance of high activity on pavement terraces throughout the year has undoubtedly helped strong growth in the sector over the last 12 years.

According to businesses in the sector removing the gas heaters would cause the loss of thousands of jobs and some 20% of total turnover in the sector. This in turn would mean reduced payment of charges and taxes and further exacerbate current social security deficits.

Xavier Denamur, a Paris restaurateur said: “Instead of destroying jobs, increasing local taxes and depriving many Parisians of access to winter opening of pavement cafés, might it not be better to tax the butane heaters used? A tax of 500 euros per year on 15,000 to 20,000 patio heaters in use in Paris would raise 7.5 to 10 million euros for City Hall.”

According to La Paris City hall is the proud owner of 26.5 km2 of sidewalks, or 25% of the total area of the capital, a veritable licensing goldmine. The Council says it has spent eight long months in consultations with local residents and traders and its contested proposals aim to update licensing arrangements that are more than 20 years old.

Lyne Cohen Solal said: “The criteria selected include the aesthetics of the solutions proposed and environmental concerns including gas heaters that heat the street, while electrical heaters, umbrellas and a lack of ashtrays will also be subject to a new license tax.”

Council charges vary naturally enough, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Cafés on the Champs-Élysées are taxed proportionately more than poorer neighborhoods. The lowest category—in a modest neighborhood costs 15.81 euros per m2 of pavement occupied. A café on the Champs-Élysées pays 87.49 euros per m2 and on average it costs these cafés or restaurants 6965 euros per m2 to operate because apart from the sidewalk fee they also pay a boundary tax and taxes for heating, for umbrellas, for rigid screens, name plates, neon signs, and sun blinds and so on.

Here is the Paris City Hall statement on its greened and updated licensing plan:

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, a PS-Socialist deputy representing Paris in the National Assembly was interviewed on the controversy by RMC-Radio Monte Carlo and described the new regulations as “nitpicking”. Speaking of plans to suppress butane gas heaters, he said: “It’s unbelievable. This is regulatory nitpicking on behalf of principle and the eco-warriors. I fully understand that a number of café owners would be angered and repelled.”

Initial reactions by commenters posting on the Le Post website were very hostile to the project. One, “Tendreloup”, said it was just a sign of more “persecution of smokers.” Others noted City Hall was picking a very selective fight. “How about trucks and delivery vehicles allowed to move freely around the city belching pollution “, asked an indignant “Olivier62 “.

Story: Ken Pottinger

Here is the full text of Synhorcat’s round robin to City Councillors

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