Sidewalk cafes and access need to co-exist in St. Paul

Keeping sidewalks clear for all pedestrians is the goal of a proposed St. Paul city ordinance. The St. Paul City Council hosts a public hearing on ordinance changes at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17 at the City Hall/Courthouse, third floor council chambers.

The ordinance is being changed to address concerns about access for people with disabilities, who have found it difficult to pass by some sidewalk cafes. The café tables, chairs, planters and other fixtures extend so far into the sidewalk, people in wheelchairs and those who use scooters, walkers or canes have difficulty passing through. The proposed changes, which are being brought forward by Ward Two Council Member Dave Thune, would require every restaurant with a sidewalk cafe to obtain licenses from both the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) and a right-of-way permit from Public Works.    

The ordinance changes would also give Public Works the authority to cancel the permit for violations of the minimum distance requirements.

Thune said he brought the ordinance forward after hearing concerns about obstructed sidewalks. “I certainly don’t want to prevent restaurants from having sidewalk cafes,” he said. “We know the summer is short in Minnesota and people want to be able to dine outdoors.”

But in some cases sidewalk cafes were obstructing sidewalks to the point that pedestrians couldn’t easily get through. In reviewing city ordinances Thune and city staff found that the city’s sidewalk café regulations aren’t in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

If adopted by the City Council later this month, the ordinance would take effect in late December. Most restaurants have packed up their tables and chairs for the season so the full impact wouldn’t be seen until 2011.

Chris Beckstrom is a downtown resident who uses a scooter or walker to get around. Beckstrom is interested in the ordinance and supports its intent but is skeptical that it could be enforced. Another concern raised is that any new regulations balance the needs of businesses with the needs of access.

Yet he sees the ordinance as one that would greatly benefit people with disabilities.

“There are streets I just can’t walk down because they are so crowded with tables and chairs,” Beckstrom said.

The proposed changes would increase width of the “unobstructed pedestrian through walk zone” from 36″ to 48″ in compliance with federal ROWAG regulations and St. Paul’s Americans with Disabilities Act transition plan.

It would also require a “passing zone” of 72 inches every 50 feet (about four per block). Each restaurant with a sidewalk café would also be required to have a site plan drawn to scale that must be clearly posted in the window once approved. Operating hours would be limited to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., but provides a procedure to expand or restrict hours by request. The time limit could be later in the downtown district.

One issue that has been raised by community activists is the slope of some sidewalks and the potential danger that creates for wheelchairs or walkers to tip. The ordinance changes include relaxes some language that will allow sidewalk cafes to be on the “curb-side” to allow unobstructed passage through an area of the sidewalk that is more level.

Another change expands the definition of a sidewalk to include a temporary or seasonal sidewalk extension that has received a permit from Public Works. These are platforms that are to be installed in a street, in the parking lane

Under City Council rules, those supporting and opposing the ordinance each get a total of 15 minutes per side. The council will also accept written comments prior to the public hearing.

A number of city staff members, members of the public and the Mayors’ Council for People with Disabilities helped draft the ordinance.

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