Sidewalk cafe regulations continue to cause debate

St. Paul’s proposed changes to sidewalk café and store display regulations will not take effect until late February or March at the earliest, if the St. Paul City Council sticks to the agreed-on schedule. The continuing delays in proposed ordinance changes meant to ensure sidewalk accessibility are beginning to frustrate some members of the city’s disability community.  

More than half a dozen people with disabilities and their family members attended a Dec. 15 public hearing on the proposed changes. One Grand Avenue coffee house owner also attended. They spoke in support of the changes which would require a minimum 48-inch clearance zone through sidewalk cafes, sidewalk sales or merchandise and other sidewalk displays.

But several restaurant owners contacted council members in December and asked for more time to study and speak out about the changes, given the busy holiday dining season. The City Council agreed to lay over the public hearing until Jan. 5.

Ward Two Council Member Dave Thune agreed to the layover. But he also pointed out that the city’s current ordinance, calling for just 36 inches of sidewalk clearances, isn’t in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and that the city cannot continue putting off adoption of the changes.  The ADA calls for a minimum 48 inches of clearances. Pending federal regulations on sidewalk access could also add additional requirements during 2011, including the erection of fences to separate diners and sidewalk users.

The delays mean any local changes cannot be adopted until Jan. 12 at the earliest. Ordinances and ordinance changes in St. Paul don’t take effect until 30 days after those changes are adopted and then published. A second version of the ordinance was introduced Jan. 5, which could cause more debate and delays.  

The ordinance is expanded to not cover just sidewalk cafes but also to include other uses of public sidewalks, including sidewalk sales or use of sidewalks to display signs and merchandise. The ordinance changes address these uses.

Advocates are pushing for the changes to be adopted, including current and former members of the St. Paul Mayor’s Advisory Council on Disabilities. “I’m 51 years old and I have never used my wheelchair as a trump card,” said Mark Hughes, former chairman of the advisory council.  He asked the City Council, “What would you do if you were me?”

Kari Sheldon, also a member of the mayor’s advisory council, said that providing adequate access on sidewalks treats people with disabilities with the same kind of respect and dignity that other sidewalk users.

Sheldon has had to move chairs out of her way to get through sidewalks in her wheelchair. She said that is “an embarrassment for myself and for any other people with disabilities.”

“St. Paul doesn’t have a good record of complying with the ADA and that has to change,” said downtown resident Rick Cardenas. He is concerned with a lack of access on some sidewalk. At Meritage restaurant on St. Peter Street downtown, Cardenas has had to have  wrought iron fences moved out of his way.

“All we’re asking the council to do is to follow the letter of the law and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said advisory council member Scott Cohen.

Council members said no one is against providing access and following the ADA. But they questioned about some of the ordinance requirements. Thune has already amended the ordinance to address some concerns, dropping a proposed 10 p.m. closing time for sidewalk cafes and allowing business owners to file for sidewalk café licenses and right-of-way permits with only one city department and not two.

Ward Four Council Member Russ Stark questioned the need for a 24-inch buffer between the curb and any cafes. According to City Traffic Engineer, Paul St. Martin, the 24-inch distance is needed as a safety zone if there is traffic at curbside or as a safe distance to open car doors if the sidewalk café or display is in an area where on-street parking is allowed.

Other council members questioned the need to have a site plan posted, showing the arrangement of sidewalk café tables and chairs. The original draft of the ordinance called for the site plan to be in a restaurant window. The latest recommendation is to display the site inside, in the same way licenses to business are hung on a wall.

Amore Coffee owner Nancy Breymier supported the posting of a site plan. She said Amore has 19 employees and she has trouble getting them to follow the site plan and not block her sidewalk at Grand and Milton.

Thune said it’s not his intent to force restaurants to have plans professionally drawn, to scale. But he said there is a need to have the plan posted so that customers and restaurant staff can refer to it.

“If I come in with my party of eight and we squish the tables together, is that a violation of the site plan?” asked Council President Kathy Lantry. If the sidewalk is blocked by the pushed-together tables and chairs, that is a violation, said Assistant City Attorney Rachel Tierney.

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