Ask ELi: The Cost of Providing Outdoor Dining in East Lansing?

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Wednesday, August 7, 2019, 8:00 am
Amalia Medina and Alice Dreger

East Lansing photos by Raymond Holt.

In 1983, Joe Bell went to a meeting of the East Lansing Planning Commission seeking approval to build a patio outside of his restaurant. Now, 36 years later, Peanut Barrel’s outdoor patio stands as an icon of downtown East Lansing.

Bell does not recall having to fill out special paperwork for his request regarding the patio, and with the Peanut Barrel patio being on private property, few restrictions were placed on the patio’s design and use. In addition to going through the City, Bell had to adhere to the rules of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, but overall, Bell remembers it being an easy process.

“At that time, [the City] just said, ‘how many seats do you want?’ I said, ‘I think I need about 42,’ and they said, ‘ok,’ and away we went,” Bell said.

Since then, policies regarding outdoor dining spaces for East Lansing businesses have gotten a lot more complex. Today, businesses go through a more extensive and costly process, particularly if they seek to use publicly-owned land, like a portion of a sidewalk or alleyway.

Businesses that will be using public property are required to fill out the special right-of-way use application for restaurants from the City’s website. The application requires information like how much public and private property the business wants to use, when the space will be used and a drawing of what the space will look like. Businesses are also required to adhere to the policies listed on the City’s website for their space.

In East Lansing, businesses with dining seating on public property must pay $50 per seat each season. That season runs from March 15 to November 15.

Whether the fees in East Lansing are worth it is something business owners have to decide, and in making the decision, they will take into account more than direct costs and paperwork. The brew pub HopCat, 300 Grove St., tells ELi that it opted not to offer outdoor seating this season due to the extensive construction disruption on Albert Avenue. (HopCat is currently closed for renovations and will reopen Aug. 19.)

The ELi reader who asked us to look into these issues asked how the process and the costs may differ in Ann Arbor, where many restaurants offer outdoor seating along the sidewalks, as shown in this reader-supplied photo:

Ann Arbor City Planner Chris Cheng explains that if a restaurant in Ann Arbor wants to use a portion of a public right-of-way for outdoor seating, the business needs to “complete the sidewalk occupancy permit application and provide the required documentation” shown here, and must follow many rules about notification, insurance, and use of the sidewalk.

So Ann Arbor has a lot of rules, regulations, and forms, too. But where the cost is concerned, there East Lansing and Ann Arbor differ. For use of the public right-of-way for restaurant seating, Ann Arbor charges $1 per square foot per year. (A daily permit option is available at 5 cents per day per square foot, if a business wants to use the sidewalk only for special occasions, like festivals.)

To compare the costs of outdoor seating, take two examples:

The outdoor dining space offered in front of Campbell’s Market Basket, 547 E. Grand River Ave., can seat four people total and takes up about 20 square feet. In East Lansing, providing those four seats will cost Campbell’s Market Basket $200 per year. In Ann Arbor, that would cost about $20 per year.

The picnic tables outside Fieldhouse, 213 Ann St., can seat six people each, and each takes up about 56 (9x7) square feet. (We are including a foot extra on each side of the table in the calculation.) In East Lansing, offering that kind of picnic table on a public sidewalk will cost a restaurant $300 per year. In Ann Arbor, it would come to about $56 per year.

Businesses with outdoor seating in East Lansing on private property (like Peanut Barrel) don’t have to pay the City per outdoor seat per season. But each year, all East Lansing restaurants must renew their restaurant licenses with the City and pay fees associated with that.

The initial fee for an East Lansing restaurant license is $80, with a license transfer fee of $275. Annual fees for downtown restaurants start at $100 per year and go up from there, pegged to the maximum permitted indoor occupancy of the restaurant. An East Lansing restaurant that wants to offer take-out downtown has to pay $400 to the City. Non-downtown businesses pay half the amount charged to those downtown.

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