A pitcher of Budweiser and a sidewalk seat: it may soon be the newest downtown attraction.
City commissioners at their meeting Tuesday night will consider lifting a long-standing ban against downtown bars applying for sidewalk seating areas. Since 1994, downtown restaurants that make at least 70 percent of their sales from food have been allowed to apply for sidewalk seating areas. But bars and restaurants that don't meet that sales standard have been prohibited.
Now, the rules could undergo a dramatic change by reducing the food sales requirement for all businesses, and eliminating it altogether for about 15 downtown bars. The proposed regulations are being billed as a compromise between the city and bar owners, who have been clamoring for outdoor seating since the city implemented a smoking ban more than three years ago.
"This would help us tremendously," said Jerry Neverve, owner of Red Lyon Tavern, 944 Mass. "The smokers are out there anyway. They might as well be contained in an area."
The proposed regulations, however, wouldn't open the door for every downtown bar to have a sidewalk drinking area. Instead, only downtown bars that can show they have no room to build a back deck or other outside area for their patrons would be allowed to receive a sidewalk seating license.
City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said he thinks only five to six additional businesses will end up qualifying for a sidewalk license.
"I think there will be some change to downtown, but not a significant change," Chestnut said. "I don't think the ambiance will change at all."
Not all downtown merchants are sure. Joe Flannery, president of Weaver's Department Store, said he had questions about the proposal.
"I just think our sidewalk space is precious, and as much foot traffic as we have, I wouldn't like to see it become more congested," Flannery said. "And I think if you are allowing people to drink outside, you are going to have some issues."
Currently, patrons of downtown restaurants with sidewalk seating areas can drink outside, but many of them do so as part of a meal. At the bars, that would not be the case.
Jane Pennington, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said her membership recognized that there could be some problems, but generally wanted to give the new arrangement a try.
"Given the smoking ban, this seems like the only fair thing to do for some of these businesses," Pennington said.
The new regulations would make several other significant changes. They include:
¢ No glass drinkware, glass bottles or aluminum cans would be allowed in the sidewalk areas because of safety concerns.
¢ Future businesses wanting to apply for sidewalk dining areas - excluding the group of bars that already exist - would have to show that 55 percent of their sales come from food. Currently, the requirement is that they derive 70 percent of their sales from food. That would make the sidewalk dining regulations consistent with downtown's zoning requirements, which state no new business can serve alcohol unless they make 55 percent of their sales from food.
¢ Staff members from the city's Codes Enforcement Division would inspect all sidewalk dining areas once every three months to ensure they comply with city regulations.
¢ No sidewalk seating area would be allowed if it left less than five feet of unobstructed sidewalk space for pedestrians.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday night at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.