The downtown area could see a population boom take place along its sidewalks soon — at least among tables and chairs.
At its meeting Tuesday, the Downtown Improvement District (DID) recommended the city revise its sidewalk café ordinance so non-dining establishments can place tables and chairs outdoors.
The recommendation came after A. Parker’s Books and the Gator Club, both located on Main Street near Lemon Avenue, expressed an interest in establishing outdoor seating. Under the current city ordinance regulating sidewalk cafés, however, only dining establishments are allowed to provide outdoor seating for their customers.
As part of Main Street improvement efforts this summer, sidewalks were widened and brick bulb-outs were constructed at several intersections, including Lemon Avenue. DID members said Jeff Speck, a walkability expert who spoke in the city earlier this year, encouraged the presence of cafés and other sidewalk attractions throughout downtown.
Representatives from the businesses seeking a change to the ordinance echoed that sentiment.
“It’s ridiculous to have the neck-outs and not have anything there,” Gator Club owner Larry Siegel said.
At A. Parker’s Books, the tables would be put out so customers could play table games like chess or backgammon, according to Manager Dan Christian. The DID was especially receptive to that idea, as were other downtown merchants, according to Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association President Ron Soto.
Rick Knowlton, a Sarasota chess enthusiast, spoke at Tuesday’s meeting to assure the DID that the gaming tables would be used.
“If you put them up, we will come,” Knowlton said. “We’ve got the chess culture in town to support them.”
In response to a question about whether the Gator Club would attempt to extend the current hours sidewalk cafés are allowed to operate, Siegel said it would abide by the regulations in place. Sidewalk cafés must be vacated by 11 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday, and by 11:59 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
City engineer Alex DavisShaw said there were some concerns about expanding the program because the city already receives occasional complaints about the lack of tidiness from existing sidewalk cafés. She said staff was worried that adding more tables — and thus requiring more enforcement — could worsen the problem. Still, she said, the city was interested in activating downtown.
The next step, DavisShaw said, is for the City Commission to consider if it is interested in changing the ordinance. If it is, the commission would have to receive public input before it could vote on whether to approve a revision. Overall, the process could take a few months before any change is in place, she said.
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