Outdoor Cafes Zoning Ordinance Amendment

The Zoning Ordinance permits outdoor cafes as an accessory use to an already approved restaurant in 15 of Arlington’s 19 different zoning districts which allow commercial and mixed use development. Of the four districts which prohibit outdoor cafes, staff has identified the R-C district as a likely candidate to allow outdoor cafes given the prevalence of this district’s use in and near Metrorail station areas. Staff are reviewing the other three districts (C-1-O, C-1-R, and RA-H) to determine whether these districts should also be amended to allow outdoor cafes.


Arlington has over 40 years of experience as a community with the review, approval and regulation of outdoor cafes. Restaurants which provide café seating and tables for the exclusive use of their patrons who wish to dine outdoors are subject to zoning regulations which prevent obstructed walkways, excessive noise, and other issues from arising which would be disruptive to surrounding residences and businesses. These existing use standards would remain in effect and unchanged as they are outside the study’s scope.

Although the R-C zoning district standards encourage a mix of residential and commercial uses near Metrorail stations that are designated for high-medium residential mixed-use development, outdoor cafes as defined in the Zoning Ordinance are currently prohibited in R-C. This is due to the transition from a “pyramid” format in the pre-2013 Zoning Ordinance to the use tables which are utilized in the current ordinance. Since the R-C district shared the same permitted uses as the RA14-26 district, which did not permit outdoor cafes, the ability to establish an outdoor café in R-C was excluded from the reformatted Zoning Ordinance.

Outdoor Cafes vs. Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas

Many Arlington restaurants, bars, and cafes are currently operating temporary outdoor seating areas, or TOSAs, in response to the Commonwealth’s Phase Three Forward Virginia Guidelines for operating such establishments in compliance with required public health protocols to minimize the spread of COVID‑19. TOSAs enable restaurants and similar businesses to operate in expanded exterior spaces and serve food and beverages at up to 50% of the establishment’s occupancy capacity.

While TOSAs may resemble outdoor cafes and function in a similar manner, a TOSA is not a specified land use in the ACZO. TOSAs are reviewed and approved by staff as part of a separate County initiative outside of the County’s zoning laws. The regulations and procedures associated with TOSAs are outside of the scope of this study and will not be amended as a result of this work.

Arlington County Retail Plan

Arlington County’s adopted it’s Retail Plan in 2015 to foster convenient, appealing, activating, and sustainable retail countywide. The Retail Plan details how outdoor cafes are one of many elements that provide interest and activity to Arlington’s retail environment. Outdoor cafes enliven the streetscape, provide passive surveillance of the street, and enable people’s participation in street life. “Third places” – locations outside of home or work where people meet, socialize and learn from each other – are highlighted as community elements that, when present, can add activity and excitement to street life as centers of gathering. In addition, outdoor cafes provided expanded seating areas beyond a restaurant’s leased indoor space which can enable increased amounts of dining service and revenues that contribute to the financial stability of business owners and property owners.

Zoning District Recommendations

Staff recommends permitting outdoor cafes as an accessory use in the R-C zoning district because its location in and around Metrorail stations as a transitional zone to lower density residential development makes it an appropriate district for allowing outdoor cafes. Restaurants of all types may already be permitted in R-C subject to site plan approval, and this amendment would allow restaurant operators on R-C zoned property to establish outdoor cafes as restauranteurs currently can in 15 other commercial/mixed use districts.

Staff evaluated three other districts for enabling outdoor cafes, but recommends no changes to the Zoning Ordinance at this time. Two of the three districts, RA-H and C-1-O, do not permit restaurants, so enabling outdoor cafes would be moot given that the café must be associated with an already permitted restaurant. Although C-1-R permits general restaurants as a by-right use, there are only eight properties zoned C-1-R in Arlington that are generally located in isolated areas surrounded by residential neighborhoods. These areas are not targeted areas for growth and commercial activity in the county’s General Land Use Plan (GLUP), and their GLUP designations for residential use signal that the long-term vision for these parcels is to transition to residential uses.

Staff have prepared maps to identify the location of the parcels zoned R-C, C-1-R, C-1-O, and RA-H in Arlington. 


Review Process & Community Engagement

Timeline Milestone & Materials
August/September 2020
  • Research and Analysis
  • Mapping
October 16 – November 2
  • Online feedback opportunity
October/November 2020
  • Community engagement
  • Outreach to business community and civic associations
November 14, 2020
December 1, 2020
December 14, 2020

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