Citing an increase in foot traffic in downtown Frederick, a group of residents asked the city this week to update the city’s code on businesses operating sidewalk cafes.
While the current code states that businesses must leave 5 feet for pedestrian traffic in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the first and primary request of the residents of Neighborhood Advisory Council 11, which encompasses downtown, was for the city to limit the sidewalk space a business can use for outdoor seating and eating to no more than half of the sidewalk. The argument was that some businesses where the sidewalks are especially wide have created bottlenecks by being allowed to swallow up the majority of the walking space for their cafe areas.
“Sometimes [this forces] people to wait their turn to pass on a busy sidewalk, and also to step in the street and walk in the street to go around the cafe enclosure,” said Darcy Richards, a NAC 11 co-chair, who noted that the width of sidewalks varies between 11 and 19 feet from the facade of the building to the street. “... Where Vini Culture is, I think the sidewalk is 14 to 15 feet wide, people walk more abreast, come down the sidewalk, you know, in packs, and when they reach an obstruction that takes over half the sidewalk, sometimes people have to wait their turn to pass on a 14- or 15-foot sidewalk.”
According to the advisory council’s study, which was made available to Mayor Michael O’Connor and the Board of Aldermen, at least five of the downtown businesses with sidewalk cafes took up more than 50 percent of the sidewalk space, which the NAC residents argued creates a potential public safety hazard if pedestrians tried to walk around congested areas by stepping into the street.
“This is not an overwhelming request,” said Julia Schaeffer, another NAC co-chair.
Schaeffer’s optimism was soon tempered, however, by the voices of business owners who also attended Wednesday’s workshop in City Hall. Many of those speaking for the business community, including Bryan Nuckols, argued that further restrictions would cut into their profit margins and, in some scenarios, force staff cuts.
Nuckols, who spoke on behalf of Cafe Nola, pointed out that, besides wasting the $4,000 that the cafe paid for the enclosure of its outdoor area, reducing the space by 6 inches or a foot to meet the 50 percent request by residents would make it next to impossible to serve patrons sitting outside the cafe.
“It would probably eventually lead us to remove our cafe, losing three of our tables out of the 18 would cut our profits about 15 percent in the summer,” Nuckols told the board in a public comment period after the NAC’s presentation. “... Before even evaluating the loss of sales from the loss of exposure, we’re definitely going to have to fire people ... we’re going to have to fire at least three people.”
Cherie Nearman, who owns Hootch & Banter with her husband, Sherif Salem, also protested further restrictions to the sidewalk cafe ordinance, arguing that the patio has increased their restaurant’s total seating area by 20 percent.
“Losing our patio, we would lose a server, we would lose a [busboy], we would lose one or two kitchen people because a lot of our business is on the patio, it’s busy all day long, people love it. ... Every year, the sales tax we generate from the patio is around $15,000,” Nearman said.
The rest of the public comment section seemed fairly evenly divided between those in favor of keeping the ordinance as it is and those who cited concerns about increasingly crowded sidewalks around some of the businesses.
While the majority of the aldermen were in favor of continuing the discussion at a future public workshop, Alderman Ben MacShane expressed skepticism regarding the magnitude of the problem depicted in the NAC report. He recounted his own experience pushing a double-wide stroller downtown earlier that day.
“I was pushing them along today, about five hours ago, and we passed by The Orchard, we passed by Nola, we passed by JoJo’s, we passed by a number of businesses that had enclosed seating areas [and] I did not experience any problems,” MacShane said, pointing out that of the nearly 20 locations mentioned in the report, only a handful exceeded the NAC’s proposed 50 percent cutoff by more than a few inches. “... We’re talking about perhaps three locations in the entirety of downtown that, to some, are causing problems, yet [the locations] are in compliance with the code.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak said she still believed there was a need to discuss the proposed changes further, citing her own experiences navigating some sidewalks while pushing a wheelchair.
“How wide is the table that you’re sitting at?” Kuzemchak asked her fellow aldermen. “About 6 feet, do you think? So think about 5 feet and whether you’re walking side by side with somebody and how wide that is. I think there are some questions. ... Do I think there are still problems? Yes.”
The topic will return before the mayor and aldermen at an as-yet unscheduled future workshop, according to O’Connor, who said he planned to invite city staff to participate in the next discussion in order to get better answers regarding sidewalk measurements and the city’s code.