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Sarasota Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 2 weeks ago

City approves expanded outdoor dining as long-term fixture

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More than a year after the city enacted emergency rules allowing restaurant seating in parking spaces, officials are debating the best approach for more formal regulations.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Outdoor restaurant seating that extends past the sidewalk and into public parking spots could become a long-term fixture in the city, though officials have conflicting opinions on the appropriate price tag to put on the extra space.

At a Nov. 15 meeting, the City Commission expressed support for formally codifying a series of outdoor dining rules that date back to emergency orders associated with the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The board expressed broad support for continuing to accommodate outdoor business activity, directing staff to draft a series of regulations designed to foster dining and shopping on the sidewalk and beyond.

Although some of the most notable recent changes to outdoor dining were initially imagined as  temporary, city officials spoke positively about what’s taken place since spring 2020.

“I hear constantly people saying to me how they’re excited about what’s going on downtown, the direction we’re trying to go and the energy and vitality we’re trying to provide,” Commissioner Kyle Battie said.

Parking spaces

During the past 18 months, visitors to downtown Sarasota could track the evolution of pandemic-era outdoor dining by looking at the barricades used to cordon off makeshift cafe areas in curbside parking spaces.

Last year, when the city authorized expanded outdoor dining, many restaurants used metal bicycle racks to separate their customers from cars driving down the street. Today, along Main Street, most businesses taking advantage of the extra space are opting for a more refined option — large planters and other more substantive barricades, many of which are adorned with the logos of the corresponding restaurant.

Although the state of emergency associated with COVID-19 has expired, restaurant owners say the increased demand for outdoor dining has not faded. Mitch Good, co-owner of El Melvin on Main Street, said that as long as the weather is good, the restaurant’s sidewalk and parking spot tables are always the first to fill up.

“I haven’t met anybody that doesn’t prefer to sit outside,” Good said.

At the Nov. 15 meeting, the commission also noted the sustained interest in outdoor dining, voting 4-1 to continue to allow the use of parking spaces for “parklets” with expanded restaurant seating. Under a new program allowing the parklets, staff said businesses would have to provide more substantial barricades rather than the bike racks.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch was the lone vote against permitting parklets, citing opposition from merchants who opposed the loss of some on-street parking spots for the benefit of other businesses. The city has currently permitted the use of 54 parking spaces to provide seating for 20 businesses, including 42 spots for 16 Main Street restaurants.

Although one commissioner wanted to require more space for pedestrians to walk by sidewalk cafes, a majority of the board voted to maintain the current standards.

“Every spot that is taken away is a potential customer that can’t park near them,” Ahearn-Koch said.

Although a majority of the commission supported parklets, the board had no consensus on what fees should be associated with the program. City Engineer Nik Patel said staff would seek to recoup the loss of any expected fees associated with a paid parking space, which could be as much as $5,575 annually per spot in the busiest areas of Main Street.

Commissioner Hagen Brody expressed opposition to increasing the costs associated with getting permits for parklets or traditional sidewalk cafes. 

“I definitely don’t want to support anything that costs our businesses more to have something I think we all want,” Brody said.

Commissioner Liz Alpert said she thought it was fair to levy heftier fees on restaurants interested in using parking spaces, stating it was functionally increasing the footprint of their business.

“It’s an additional rent, which is really actually pretty reasonable for the amount of space they’re getting on an annual basis,” Alpert said.

Commissioner Kyle Battie said he wasn’t opposed to charging a fee for the parklets, but he also noted COVID-19 remains a challenge and businesses are not far removed from the most significant effects of the pandemic.

“We’re not completely out of this situation that we’re in, really,” Battie said. “I don’t want us to gloss over that and the fact that we’re still doing what we can to try to help out the merchants and restaurants.”

Staff said it would bring back an ordinance with regulations for the parklet program — including potential costs — at a future meeting.

Sidewalk clearance

In August, downtown resident Jim Lampl reached out to the city with a point of concern about a sidewalk cafe: The tables and seating at a Main Street restaurant left almost no room for pedestrians to navigate.

Lampl said the city has been lax in enforcing its requirement that cafes must retain at least 5 feet of clearance for passersby. He thinks that standard is too low, too, encouraging city officials to mandate at least 9 feet of space for pedestrians to walk next to outdoor dining areas.

Businesses such as Green Zebra Café and Café Amici have invested in more substantive dividers between their expanded outdoor seating areas and the road.

“Sidewalks should be sacrosanct,” Lampl said at the Nov. 15 meeting. “They should take precedence over cafes.”

Despite that concern, a majority of the City Commission said it was OK with retaining the 5-foot requirement for pedestrian clearings adjacent to sidewalk cafes. Ahearn-Koch was the lone official to advocate for expanding that requirement, stating that a narrower gap could pose challenges, particularly for families with strollers or people in wheelchairs.

“Of course we don’t want to damage any of our restaurants, but we also need to protect our pedestrians, as well, and continue to ask for the sidewalk width that’s necessary,” Ahearn-Koch said.

Brody spoke in defense of the 5-foot standard, stating he did not want to create a disadvantage for businesses that happen to operate in areas with less room on the sidewalk.

The commission voted to maintain the current staffing level of two employees to enforce sidewalk cafe regulations, which a city presentation said was in line with other Florida municipalities.

The commission also voted 4-1 to change its fee structure for sidewalk permits, charging businesses $2 per square foot of cafe space plus a $274 base fee. Previously, the city charged a $548 base fee for two tables and $50 per additional table.

More businesses

Under the city’s new rules, restaurants aren’t the only businesses that will be able to take advantage of sidewalk space.

The commission voted unanimously in favor of legalizing outdoor vending, allowing retail stores to display merchandise and conduct business in the public right of way. Although staff has not determined the specifics of an outdoor vending program, officials spoke favorably of the change.

“I love the idea of merchants having a rack of clothes or art — whatever the business is, having public visibility there,“ Brody said.

In a 4-1 vote, the commission also voted to expand the sidewalk cafe program to allow bars to apply for outdoor seating. Currently, the city requires businesses to sell food and beverages to obtain a permit. Ahearn-Koch cast the dissenting vote, arguing the existing requirement was reasonable.

“It’s not an undue burden to serve some pretzels,” Ahearn-Koch said.

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