Sidewalk gridlock

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September 12, 2005 // UPDATED 1:57 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Downtown's sidewalk caf/s are a joy but can leave too little room to walk -- or roll. Will tougher standards help, or kill, the new golden goose?

The past five months -- Minneapolis' first smoke-free summer -- may be remembered as the wild west of sidewalk caf/ seating. Applications flooded in as Downtown bar owners viewed the outdoors as only thing that could keep them in business.

As a result, some people with disabilities say they've been snarled in sidewalk traffic and pedestrians have complained, as well, prompting the city to rein in caf/s with regulations that will leave them enough room to get by.

On June 7, city staff brought new standards to the City Council, mandating at least 6 feet of clearance on all Downtown sidewalks.

Business owners and some Councilmembers said the new standards would wipe many caf/s off the streets.

"I was shocked," said Mike Jennings, president of the Minneapolis Licensed Beverage Association and owner of several Warehouse District bars. "I was surprised nobody from the hospitality industry had been contacted. At least to let us know or to get our input," he said.

The Council sent staff back to the drawing board with a task force including business representatives and people with disabilities. Their charge is to write standards that would balance safety and the bottom line.

However, Downtown sidewalks differ greatly in terms of character and obstructions, and they do not fit easily into one-size-fits-all regulation.

"It's fair to say this is a complicated situation with a lot of variables," said Ricardo Cervantes of the city's Regulatory Services department.

Cervantes said the city has received almost 50 complaints this year, some from people with disabilities but more from pedestrians having trouble maneuvering amongst sidewalk furniture who often remark, 'What if I had the need for a wheelchair?' Cervantes said.

After three months of meetings, task force members may be reaching a compromise. The clearance standard could be set at 4 feet, not 6, based on a simple line on the sidewalk.

"Otherwise, nobody knows where the line is," said Margo Indieke-Cross, a task force member from the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities. "Nobody's got a tape measure."

Well, Downtown Journal does, and we measured area sidewalk caf/s to see which would get a passing grade under the 4-foot-standard, which could take effect April 1, when annual applications are due.

Setting the standard

The city's current "Criteria of Traffic and Parking Services" for sidewalk caf/s mandates "a 6-foot straight unobstructed sidewalk... between the edge of the caf/ and the nearest obstacle," and "sometimes" 8 feet in areas with lots of pedestrian traffic.

Business owner and task force member Jennings was shocked to learn of the 6-foot requirement. He and other bar owners believed 4 feet was required. Public Works' Doug Maday confirmed that caf/s are approved with 4-8 feet of clearance, based on traffic and pedestrian flow and obstructions. With enforcement largely complaint-driven, a 4-foot minimum seems to have set in.

Standards proposed -- but not adopted -- in June would have required 6 feet of clearance along the full block for sidewalks up to 12 feet wide (8 feet if wider). Furthermore, all tables would have to be next to the building, not closer to the curb.

In contrast, the task force's standards -- to be finalized in October -- will likely be looser. The Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities recommends just 4 feet of clearance for sidewalks up to 12 feet wide (6 feet if wider). Indieke-Cross said most wheelchairs and scooters are 24-30 inches wide.

The task force eliminated the building-side table requirement, but added a 6-foot clearance "bulge" every 30 feet, no matter what the sidewalk width, to allow passing.

The recommendations also ask that "to the greatest extent possible... caf/s shall be aligned... to create a straight line of travel," which Indieke-Cross said is important for low-vision and blind people. Sidewalk boundary marks would allow for on-the-spot self-enforcement.

Said Indieke-Cross: "If I can't get through, I can point to the marking on the sidewalk and say, 'You're over the line, your table must have shifted.'"

One task force recommendation might be tough, especially for Warehouse District bars: no caf/ furniture within 8 feet of the curb where there is metered parking.

Pass or fail?

An unscientific, Thursday afternoon survey measured the distance from caf/ furniture to the nearest obstacle at 29 sidewalk caf/s. Twenty-five would not have passed June's thwarted standards, but only nine failed the 4-6-foot recommended clearance rule -- many of them by mere inches.

The 400 block of 1st Avenue North (home to Drink, Rosen's and other bars) presents a tight squeeze past parking meters, trees and light poles. However, all the caf/s are up against the buildings. That provides a straighter -- albeit narrower -- corridor than on Nicollet Mall, where obstacles such as bus shelters, stone benches, public art, fountains and kiosks disrupt pedestrian flow, making straight-line progress less likely.

Nicollet and Hennepin sidewalks wider than 12 feet would require 6 feet of clearance -- a tougher test to pass, especially south of Grant Street, where sidewalks are only 14.5 feet wide.

Sidewalk seating is not always the enemy of pedestrian flow.

During a recent Farmers' Market, the mall's narrowest clearance wasn't near a sidewalk caf/; giant boulders and stone blocks outside the US Bank building, 800 Nicollet Mall, left only 2 feet to pass by a market tent pole.

Outside the Loon Caf/, 500 1st Ave. N., tables passed the 6-foot test, but nearby steps were less than 4 feet from permanent street fixtures. Likewise, a concrete planter outside the Graves 601 Hotel in Block E is only 3 feet 8 inches from curbside light posts.

Some caf/s leave room by setting tables amidst obstructions, a no-no under June's abortive standards. On the other hand, seating outside the Dakota Bar and Grill, 1010 Nicollet Mall, incorporates -- and blocks access to -- half of a public kiosk, meaning pedestrians must stand amongst diners and servers to read the information.

Getting By

Indieke-Cross, who uses a wheelchair, says "There is a real congestion issue Downtown." At times, she said she has stopped traffic in both directions. Accidents and arguments ensue, even though most people are careful and polite.

Greg White, who lives at 3rd Street & Hennepin Avenue, said caf/s are not a problem for him and his electric scooter. However, White said he uses the street -- against traffic -- on Nicollet Mall during the Farmers' Market, for instance. Indieke-Cross said others are forced to do the same and called it "the worst case scenario" that endangers lives.

Jennings said that the task force has made him aware of problems he did not know existed. In turn, Indieke-Cross said that she is sympathetic to the needs of businesses, and both said that a compromise seems likely. Whatever is decided, come April, there will be changes that will hopefully let everyone get by.