2016-04-14 / Opinion


A Script for Sidewalk Cafes

Newport’s Broadway, its “streetscape” project notwithstanding, is a long, long way from Paris, France, where the world’s oldest sidewalk céafe, known as the Café Procope, first opened for business at 13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie in 1686.

But that doesn’t mean that our city, with its 22 restaurants currently holding sidewalk cafe permits, cannot aspire to capturing the same ambience that their Parisian counterparts first mastered centuries ago.

But that will take a little more formal guidance than is now offered by a city ordinance that basically allows the City Council to review sidewalk cafe applications on a case-by-case basis, with the maintenance of a pedestrian passageway as one of the few limitations.

With the streetscape project has come sidewalks that differ in depth, which means that some locations where there are “street-calming bump outs” now have more space for cafe tables, while others have less space. We believe that a more structured—and, yes, more stringent—ordinance is necessary that establishes equity among competing eateries and retention of public space.

Currently, all restaurants seeking the council’s blessing to operate a sidewalk cafe pay a $300 fee. Now, if one cafe has room for only four tables but another can legally place more than 40 tables on a sidewalk while still satisfying the necessary open space for pedestrians, that does not seem equitable.

The rationale for this view is no different than the thinking that stands behind the manner in which property taxes are levied. If your house is a mini-mansion on Ocean Drive looking out on the Atlantic Ocean, your property tax is bound to be much larger compared to a house located in the midst of town.

At the same time, we believe that a restaurant serving alcoholic beverages on the sidewalk could be assessed a higher fee than a café serving no alcohol.

And, we believe it is equally important that the role of sidewalks as public space not take a back seat to the interests of individual restaurants seeking to take advantage of the pleasures of alfresco dining to increase their seating capacities.

We do not oppose sidewalk cafes. We like dining outdoors as much as anyone, and appreciate the role that these amenities play in drawing patrons to our business and entertainment districts. We enjoy tables with younger and older patrons, as well as children and babies making the summer scene in Newport.

We are simply advocating for an even playing field for competing establishments and a continuing respect for pedestrians' use of public areas.

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