Outdoor dining isn't a particularly tantalizing prospect in the depths of a Kansas winter, but Lawrence city commissioners are right to be tackling this issue before the first warm days of spring.
Regulation of sidewalk seating areas has a bit more urgency for the city since it strayed in November from its established policy by issuing a sidewalk dining license to The Bourgeois Pig, which doesn't meet the normal requirement to do 70 percent of its business in food sales. City staff members were instructed to compile a report on how other communities handle sidewalk dining and are scheduled to report to and seek additional guidance from city commissioners tonight.
The staff looked at policies in about a half-dozen communities similar to Lawrence. Most of the communities had some requirement for food sales although some required that food be only 50 percent of an establishment's business. Some communities had done away with the food requirement, making both restaurants and bars eligible for outdoor seating. Others had tried to spell out ways other than a percentage of food sales to define a restaurant.
Outdoor dining facilities seem most attractive when there is more room for them than on the sidewalks of Lawrence. That often is when communities have closed streets to create pedestrian malls, although even those can get overcrowded. (Orange Bowl visitors who ventured onto Miami Beach's Lincoln Road experienced one such area.)
Although outdoor dining can add to the ambiance of downtown during pleasant weather, sidewalk space is limited. Proposed guidelines for sidewalk dining areas prepared by the city-county planning staff call for maintaining at least 6 feet of sidewalk width for pedestrians. On side streets, keeping 5 feet of sidewalk clear might be acceptable.
Commissioners must balance many interests when considering expanded sidewalk dining areas, but their top concern should be to provide adequate sidewalk space for pedestrians, some of whom travel in strollers or wheelchairs. They also must consider whether loosening food service requirements and allowing drinking establishments to receive sidewalk licenses will result in unruly, perhaps drunken, patrons spilling onto the sidewalks - something that definitely doesn't add to downtown's ambience.
The narrow seating areas that currently are allowed along Massachusetts Street don't provide a particularly serene or inviting atmosphere for many patrons and can be inconvenient for pedestrian traffic. Commissioners are right to take a comprehensive look at sidewalk dining, but they should be wary of expansions that could exacerbate current problems and perhaps create a crop of new ones.