2016-04-14 / Front Page

Sidewalk Cafes Are Discussed

By Barry Bridges

With the city set to celebrate its urban forest during the upcoming Newport Arboretum Week, trees are causing concerns for some Broadway restaurateurs who are worried that they could impact alfresco dining.

With the final phases of the streetscape project picking up steam, the Broadway Merchants Association met on Monday, April 11. Several proprietors said that trees soon to be planted along the corridor would interfere with their sidewalk eating spaces.

Mary Wall of Ben’s Chili Dogs was dismayed to realize that a new tree will be located in front of her establishment and is worried that no room will remain for outdoor tables since a city ordinance requires that sidewalk cafes maintain a six-foot pedestrian passageway.

“I can’t put my tables just anywhere,” Wall said, adding that they also have to be set up consistent with her security cameras. “I’m not happy about this. Once that tree is planted, I’m stuck with it. Trees should not be in front of eateries; they should be in front of retail centers.”

Newport Director of Public Services Bill Riccio told Newport This Week that while the city has been flexible in accommodating issues that have arisen during the construction project, specific requests have to be examined in their totality. He said that a myriad of issues, such as utility line locations, may prevent a tree from being moved.  

“Some merchants are also confused about the ordinance,” he elaborated. “We encourage businesses to ‘engage the space.’ For example, the six-foot passageway doesn’t have to be at the curb; it could be against the storefront, and tables could then be placed around the tree. They should use the tree, and its shade, to their advantage.”

But under current protocol, it could be that the Broadway project confers greater benefits to certain restaurants depending on their location.

Although the sidewalk cafe ordinance outlines operating restrictions, the law is silent as to the size of the dining area permitted outside of the six-foot pedestrian requirement. Likewise, it does not speak to the number of tables allowed.

Thus, in areas enjoying wider sidewalks, restaurant owners could presumably welcome more outside dining patrons compared to other eateries. For example, in its sidewalk cafe renewal documents currently being considered by the council, Fifth Element at 111 Broadway is proposing 11 tables with 4 heads each, for a total outdoor seating capacity of 44 in the newly-expanded space fronting its business.

All restaurants pay the same $300 annual fee, whether they have room for two customers or 44, and there is no differentiation among venues serving lighter fare versus heavier meals.

As to whether this dynamic means that the ordinance may be ripe for review, Third Ward City Councilor Kathryn Leonard said, “There should perhaps be more standards in the law to create more uniformity and to let applicants know what is expected.” She described instances where permit holders have put out more tables on weekends, and she would like requirements more clearly delineated.

Newport Zoning Officer Guy Weston initially approves applications for sidewalk cafe permits and their accompanying site plans before they are placed on the council’s docket. There are currently 22 restaurants with sidewalk cafe permits in the city, and 13 of those establishments had their applications renewed at the City Council meeting on Wednesday, April 13.

“We make sure an application meets the requirements of the ordinance and then send it on to the council,” Weston said. Some specifications are outlined: Merchants must have proper insurance; alcoholic beverages can only be served where food service is also offered; and cafe seating must be removed by 11 p.m., with proper cleanup of the area done by midnight.

Weston noted that an amended site plan would have to be approved before a cafe could spread across an expanded sidewalk. His staff passes along any concerns they may be posed by specific sites. “But in the end, it’s the council that ultimately gives approval.”

That point is not lost on City Solicitor Christopher Behan. He told Newport This Week that the council always has the option of denying requests. “Just because a restaurant has a 15-foot sidewalk doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be approved for a nine-foot cafe [allowing for the six-foot exclusion],” he said. “The council examines each application closely, especially if someone has pointed out an issue.”

The fact that some business owners have larger sidewalk spaces available for commercial activity is in some ways the nature of the beast, Behan surmised. But he also said the council is free to even out the playing field by adopting a measure that would add more consistency to the size of sidewalk cafes or the number of tables authorized.

“They could do that as part of their policing power. But for now they look at each application on a case-by-case basis to ensure it won’t create public safety issues.”

Merchants who talked with Newport This Week seemed to take possible variations in stride. Chelynn Sheehan of Malt at 150 Broadway has immediate neighbors who may be able to broaden their outdoor seating courtesy of the new sidewalk design, while she will not be as well positioned.

Sheehan said, “They may get more tables, but good for them. That’s life. But it’s better for the whole area. It helps to draw people in, and if there’s more seating in general then it’s good for us as well.”

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