City commissioners are moving toward a new policy on sidewalk dining areas, but the biggest decisions still are on the table.
Lawrence city commissioners tweaked and approved a new set of guidelines for sidewalk dining in downtown, but haven't dealt with the big issue: whether to allow bars that do less than 70 percent of their business in food to install sidewalk seating areas.
Before approving the guidelines compiled by the city's Historic Resources Commission, commissioners made a couple of questionable revisions. One was to allow railings around the areas to be higher than the 36 inches recommended by the HRC. The other was to allow umbrellas to shade tables on the sidewalk.
Presumably, both of these issues will be tempered by practicality if not by city policy. Railings somewhat higher than 36 inches might be fine, but 6-foot fences imprisoning diners could be pretty unattractive.
While the need for shade at certain times of the day would be desirable, it seems that a well-placed awning would be far preferable to umbrellas at many locations. The city certainly doesn't want umbrellas that are wider than the narrow seating areas allowed on the Massachusetts sidewalk - or at a height at which they would be a hazard to pedestrians. The umbrellas also have to be well-anchored so they don't become dangerous projectiles in a Kansas wind.
These problems, however, are minor and manageable compared to the bigger question of whether the city should allow outside tables at drinking establishments downtown. First, there is the issue of how many sidewalk seating areas are desirable downtown. As some commissioners have pointed out, sidewalks are primarily for pedestrians and need to remain open and accessible for people on foot.
It also seems likely that the ambiance of outdoor seating areas would be far different at a bar than at a restaurant whose primary business is serving food. The atmosphere would likely change even more as the night wore on. One bar owner who favors the outdoor seating areas told the Journal-World recently that he was confident patrons would be well-behaved and that bar owners would closely monitor the areas because they know the city can easily revoke a sidewalk dining license. On the contrary, once such a license is granted, revoking it probably would require a legal proceeding and perhaps a fight with a business owner.
It's curious that Downtown Lawrence Inc. hasn't taken a position on the sidewalk seating issue. Perhaps differing opinions among downtown business owners make this topic too hot for the group to handle, but this decision could have a powerful impact on the business atmosphere downtown. DLI could have considerable influence if it formulated a stand.
The bar owner pushing for more sidewalk seating accused city officials of "overthinking" this issue. We disagree. While some sidewalk dining can be an attractive and popular addition to Lawrence's downtown, it's important that city commissioners take a very thoughtful approach to a decision that could have a significant impact on the heart of Lawrence.