Sharring experiences in urban infrastructure delivery.

Sidewalk Cafes – Pros and Cons

By: Tom Davis Category: Recent Posts, Sidewalk Features

20050505 DemoVehCts_1955.JPGSidewalk cafes do “activate” the street by providing a reason for people to stay on the sidewalk; to see those driving by and be seen. In a city where smoking is prohibited inside–like Houston–the cafes are a place for the smokers. In small restaurants they provide additional floor space to sell meals. For larger restaurants they provide the same advantage. i.e. a space to increase earnings–all provided by the tax payers, Houston does have a permit fee cover the administrative expense of the permit.

With that opening you likely detect my mixed feelings about sidewalk cafes. When the weather is good I and many others enjoy sitting outside with a glass of wine and plate of cheese so there is value in providing that setting on the street. A couple of beers with your buddies after a game is fun. In addition I understand the value to creating a place with life that attracts others.

20050505 DemoVehCts_1948.JPGBut, like everything else the parameters under which the place is managed and maintained is crucial. In Houston the City issues permits as defined by an ordinance. The ordinance establishes annual fees to hopefully pay the cost of the permit and parameters for how much of the sidewalk can be taken from the public domain by the cafe.

If the cafe intends to serve alcohol to be consumed then, by Texas state law, the area must be separated, i.e. fenced off, from the public. That is because, in Texas, alcohol cannot be consumed in a public place. So, we have fences around the sidewalk cafe and a piece of the sidewalk owned by the public is no longer a public place–or sidewalk. Some of the fences are permanently attached to the sidewalk and so for 24/7 the public cannot use the area.

20050505 DemoVehCts_1951.JPGThe ordinance does establish a minimum sidewalk width. That sounds ok until you find that the person at the permit-issuing department is now in the role of responding to the bar owner’s argument that the public only needs the minimum and he/she deserves the maximum amount of sidewalk. In some places the pedestrian needs were projected during streetscape planning to warrant a 14-foot wide sidewalk. Keep in mind that 14-feet width also contains the street light set 2-feet behind the curb plus its 18-inch diameter base and the large plant with its spray of foliage and the columns from the balcony or covered entry. It all adds up and soon the strolling family is weaving in and out of the clutter and squeezing past the empty, fenced, open-air bar.

Watch for my next post about sidewalk cafe’s with a list of things to consider in an ordinance.

To read the City’s ordinance click here.

To download the sidewalk Cafe permit application click here.


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