Decision on sidewalk cafes is laid over for study

Changes to St. Paul’s regulations on sidewalk café regulations will be tabled until mid-December as restaurant owners, city staff and disability community advocates sort out a menu of issues. The public hearing, which began Nov. 17 and drew more than a dozen people, will be continued until Dec. 15.

The proposed ordinance changes were brought forward after it was found that St. Paul isn’t complying with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in terms of the minimum clearance for pedestrians to pass through sidewalk cafes. In some locations, people in wheelchairs or users of walkers and canes found themselves unable to pass through the cafes due to placement of tables, chairs, planters and other items.

Ward Two Council Member Dave Thune, who authored the ordinance, said there will be changes before the final proposal is brought forward. But he said the city also needs to look at how it accommodates people with disabilities. “This really is the right thing to do, so that everyone has the right to pass through the public right-of-way,” he said.

The regulations for sidewalk cafes currently call for a minimum 36-inch clearance. The ordinance would increase that distance to 48 inches. Because the six inches of curb along streets cannot be counted in the 48 inches that in fact would make the minimum clearance 54 inches in some cases.

The city has worked with the ADA since it was passed by Congress in 1990, said Paul St. Martin of St. Paul Public Works. But the initial federal law was vague when it came to regulations on right-of-way accessibility. Guidelines for right-of-way were not even published until 2005. The rule-making process for the guidelines is not expected to start until next year.

St. Paul’s ADA transition plan does reflect the proposed right-of-way accessibility guidelines, St. Martin said. “But one area where we’re lacking (in compliance) is sidewalk cafes.”

CapitalRiver Council and Mark Hughes, former co-chairman of the Mayor’s Advisory Council for People with Disabilities, spoke in support of the ordinance changes.

Hughes, who uses a wheelchair, said the ordinance is important for the city. “We do need the 48 inches,” he said.

Hughes also said he believes the concerns raised by the city’s restaurant owners can be addressed. But he reminded them that someday, they may have family members or friends who are disabled, and that that access is an issue that affects everybody.

Area restaurant owners said they agree with the need to provide adequate access so that people can pass through their outdoor seating areas. But in some cases, businesses have spent thousands of dollars meeting the 36-inch clearance. In other situations, tree grates, large city planters and fixtures such as curbside trash cans impact the available space.

Many complaints about the ordinance were directed at a proposal that would have required sidewalk cafes to close at 10 p.m.; something Thune said wasn’t intended to be in the ordinance. Other complaints focused on proposed regulatory changes that would have forced restaurant owners to seek sidewalk cafe licenses from the Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) and right-of-way permits from Public Works. Council members and city staff agreed that when new regulations are adopted restaurants will only have to deal with one city department.

Another objection was that a restaurant would have to display its sidewalk café site plan in its window. Thune said that could be modified to having the site plan on file and available upon public request.

Several restaurant owners, including Dan O’Gara of O’Gara’s Bar and Grill, and Stephanie Shimp of Blue Plate Restaurant Company, said they appreciate the city hearing their concerns about tree grates, planters and other sidewalk obstructions. O’Gara said he’d like to see city officials work with restaurants that have narrower sidewalks, to see if concerns can be addresses.

“I think everybody knows how tough it has been (in the hospitality industry) the last few years,” O’Gara said.

“In Highland we have several large brick planters,” Shimp said. The large planter in front of Highland Grill “would wipe out our sidewalk seating.” Those planters are likely to be removed in 2012-2013, possibly sooner, if a city capital budget request is approved.

Thune also said the city needs to look at ADA-compliant tree grates as the current grates can catch wheelchair wheels, canes and walkers.

Russell Kline, owner and chef at Meritage restaurant downtown, said he was disappointed to be speaking opposition to the ordinance. He agrees with the need for a 48-inch or four-foot clearance, saying “we want the sidewalks safe for all.” But working with the 36-inch guideline, about $10,000 was spent on furnishings and a custom fence for Meritage’s outdoor dining, only to be told by pedestrians that there wasn’t enough clearance.

Kline also pointed out that if a 54-inch clearance is enforced, his restaurant could possibly lose an entire row of outdoor tables.

One activist who has worked on the ordinance, Hamline-Midway resident Mike Sam-uelson, said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough in terms of federal law. He said that in high-traffic areas, more than 48 inches of space is needed for people with disabilities to pass through.

Another change he brought up, and that the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities is asking for, is that there be a fence installed between sidewalk cafes and the public right-of-way.

Samuelson said as federal regulations are more fully developed, there will be a requirement for fencing or some kind of barrier. But some restaurant owners said that would further squeeze their cafes.

Samuelson also said more people with disabilities need to be involved when ordinance changes are discussed. When the ordinance was presented to the advisory committee, “We were told what you wanted to do. We need to be involved in the planning.”

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