All outdoor dining areas on public open space in Central and Sheung Wan are to be closed from July after a row erupted this year. The first restaurant affected is Gaia Ristorante in the Grand Millennium Plaza. The Italian restaurant has rented a portion of the plaza for outdoor dining since 2004. Restaurants in Lan Kwai Fong could also be affected. The Central and Western District Council's decision was criticised yesterday by diners and an academic, who said the move was irrational and would affect the area's vibrancy. The council will hold an objection hearing today for the restaurant. The council's food, environment, hygiene and works committee decided to ban commercial activities on public open space after the Times Square saga, in which the developer was found to have profited from leasing the piazza for commercial activities without approval while limiting public access. Although Gaia has been paying the Lands Department an annual fee of about HK$180,000 for operating on the plaza - and the outdoor facility covers only 40 square metres, about 5 per cent of the plaza's area - the department informed the restaurant last month that its licence for outdoor dining would end on July 15. The chairman of the council's committee, Chan Hok-fung, said restaurants should not be allowed to profit from occupying public space. 'If we approve the case of the Italian restaurant, should we allow other restaurants as well?' he said. A spokesman for the restaurant said its outdoor facility had become a public gathering place. 'We encourage the public to use our outdoor tables and chairs freely before the restaurant opens at noon and we beautify the plaza with greening,' he said. 'The decision will force us to lay off some waiters serving customers sitting outdoors.' Mr Ngan, a man in his 60s who sits outside the restaurant every morning, said: 'Why close it down? The restaurant sometimes offers us drinks.' A Mrs Cheung, 70, said it was a good place to meet old friends. 'Where do we sit if they take away all the tables and chairs?' Ng Mee-kam, associated professor of urban planning at the University of Hong Kong, said she could not believe the decision, remarking that 'the council is taking a step backward'. She said cities in Europe have been introducing commercial elements into open gardens to foster community spirit. Lawmaker Patrick Lau Sau-shing urged the government to provide district councils with guidelines over the use of public open space. He also suggested using fees paid by restaurants to improve the design of local open space. 'The alfresco dining is an attraction to tourists and residents,' he said. 'The council should conduct a proper public consultation before making such a decision.'