While more sidewalk cafes enliven Nicollet Mall, some are squeezing pedestrians out of necessary walking space
A vibrant streetscape comes with a price.
Gerry Spry works and lives Downtown. She loves the Nicollet Mall's sidewalk cafes, but doesn't like how some clog already-tight sidewalks, forcing her into the street during her walks home.
"I think (sidewalk cafes) are a great thing, and I've actually eaten at quite a few of these myself. It's not that I'm against them," Spry said. "My concerns are around having a set space they use so they don't impede the pedestrians trying to get through."
Others are less diplomatic.
"There's no walking room. It's ridiculous," said one Nicollet Mall pedestrian too angry to give his name as he dodged cafe tables and other pedestrians.
City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) and Downtown Council staff person Frank Brust have heard similar gripes. This summer, both sent city license inspectors to Nicollet Mall to make sure the sidewalk cafes weren't taking up more than their allotted space.
Inspector Phil Schliesman spent three weeks whipping the cafes into compliance. When he visits a caf that does not leave enough room for pedestrians, "We tell them right then and there to move it back. Then we come back to the office and give them a warning of violation letter. If we go back and (the cafe) is back to where it should not be, we give them a ticket," Schliesman said.
The price for "failure to maintain a minimum walkway for a sidewalk cafe" runs $100, but Schliesman said he hasn't written any tickets this summer. Despite complaints from a few jostled pedestrians, Schliesman said he's only sent four violation warning letters to Nicollet Mall cafes in the past four weeks. (For Skyway News' own measurements, see page 7.)
Why the complaints but no crooks? Even with diligent enforcement, catching cafe cloggers is a crapshoot.
City law requires that cafes be dissembled and reassembled every day, so some might migrate closer to the curb depending on who sets them up.
Goodman said she hasn't received additional complaints since she sent inspectors out, but she knows that the problem could return. "I can't tell you it's fixed because it changes everyday," Goodman said.
Goodman and 9th ward council colleague Gary Schiff believe that they can fix cafe clog with six words: "Except in the Downtown Business District."
The duo has crafted an ordinance modification that would allow Downtown cafes to remain set up throughout the warmer months.
Schiff thinks that making the cafes more permanent will better keep them within their boundaries.
"The more permanent nature of sidewalk cafes means that people won't have the incentive to change the location of their seats and tables each day," Schiff said. "This way if it's one stable thing that they keep out there all the time there's going to be much less opportunity and incentive for restaurant owners to keep encroaching farther and farther."
The Nicollet Mall Design guidelines state that sidewalk cafes must:
Provide 8 feet of clear walking space when the sidewalk is 20 feet wide or less
Provide 13 feet of clear walking space where the sidewalk is more than 20 feet wide.
On other streets, clear-walking-space standards are between 4 and 6 feet from tables to curb.
Though many restaurateurs brush off encroachment accusations, most are in favor of changing the current ordinance. "I think it's a wonderful idea," said Dick Weller, assistant general manager of Zelo, 831 Nicollet Mall. "Everything would be more to code rather than having (restaurants) do something different every day."
Paul Lohman is a Nicollet Mall pedestrian who thinks the proposed ordinance change is a great idea. "I think it is an onus on business owners to have to re-invent their sidewalk cafes every day," Lohman said.
And although he supports the change, Lohman doesn't believe cafe clog is a big problem. "The Nicollet Mall is kind of a strolling mall. It's not a pedestrian freeway," he said. "So if people can't get through that fast, I don't see that as a problem."
The other goal of the ordinance change, Schiff and Goodman say, is to make sidewalk cafes more attractive.
"When you have to take this material in every day that means they start buying stackable chairs," Schiff said. "If they don't have to buy stackable furniture and it's something that can stay out there all the time, and they only have to store it in the winter time, then they can invest in real chairs, real tables, and you end up with higher quality sidewalk cafes."
Pouk Phouthavongxay, manager of Sawatdee, 1005 Nicollet Mall, said that amending the current ordinance could inspire improvements in her restaurant's cafe.
"I think I would probably put plants and flowers surrounding (the cafe) to make it look nice like you're sitting in a park," Phouthavongxay said. "If you upgrade your furniture and put more decorations in to make it look nicer people will probably want to sit outside more and enjoy the fresh air."
Other restaurateurs say they're not sure whether they'll upgrade but they'd welcome the option.
"We quite like our (sidewalk cafe) at the moment," said Shane Higgins, general manager of Brit's Pub and Eating Establishment, 1110 Nicollet Mall. "It's quite a British feel. But (upgrading) is certainly something we will consider."
And Dan McCaffery, Block E's developer, wants tenants such as the Hard Rock Cafe to have attractive outdoor dining options.
"The ordinance (as currently written) would defeat my efforts to have tenants make a pretty cafe," McCaffery said.
The next step for the ordinance change will be a public hearing before the council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee on Wednesday July 31 at City Hall, 350 S. 5th St. The ordinance change will then go to the full City Council for a vote on Aug. 9.
Walk this way
The Nicollet Mall design guidelines establish the rules for walkway widths that sidewalk cafes must leave. The guidelines state:
"Where the width of the sidewalk is 20 feet or less, an 8-foot-wide clear and unencumbered path along the sidewalk shall be provided, and where the width of the sidewalk is greater than 20 feet, a 13-foot-wide, clear and unencumbered path along the sidewalk shall be provided. It is the responsibility of the caf owner or operator to keep this sidewalk clear at all times."
Skyway News took the following measurements Tuesday afternoon July 16.
Establishments not In compliance: Marshall Field's Marketplace Cafe, 1070 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 30 feet Minimum walking width: 13 feet Actual walking width: 9 feet
Brits Pub and Eating Establishment, 1110 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 26 feet Minimum walking width: 13 feet Actual walking space: 10 feet
Chipotle, Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 30 feet Minimum walking width: 13 feet Actual walking width: 12 feet
Establishments in compliance: Brasserie Zinc, 1010 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 38 feet Minimum walking width: 13 feet Actual walking width: 15 feet
Sawatdee Thai Food, 1005 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 19 feet Minimum walking width: 8 feet Actual walking width: 10 feet
The Local, 931 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 31 feet Minimum walking width: 13 feet
Actual walking width: 14 feet Dunn Bros., 925 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 37 feet
Minimum walking width: 13 feet Actual walking width: 19 feet
The Newsroom, 990 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 18 feet Minimum walking width: 8 feet Actual walking width: 12 feet
McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, 800 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 34 feet
Minimum walking width: 13 feet Actual walking width: 21 feet Zelo, 831 Nicollet Mall Sidewalk width: 20 feet Minimum walking width: 8 feet Actual walking width: 9 feet
(Note: Measurements can change daily.)