Someone in the city hierarchy — specifically, the soon-departing Controller Alan Butkovitz — has heard my complaints that way too many restaurants are abusing the hell out of their sidewalk café licenses.
On Wednesday, Butkovitz released statistics showing that 113 restaurants, one-third of the restaurants included in his review, had racked up 218 violations.
I do an annual roundup of code-breaking selfish restaurants that put themselves above everyone around them.
“Sidewalk cafés are a wonderful addition for many bars and restaurants, boosting our local economy,” he says. “It is unfortunate that some establishments do not follow the law.”
When they don’t follow the law, it’s the Streets Department’s job to stop them.
Streets wrote up 204 sidewalk cafés for infractions in 2016, I reported earlier this year — an 87 percent increase over the 109 tickets written in 2015. Right-of-way manager Patrick O’Donnell has seven inspectors to cover 314 sidewalk cafés scattered around the city. As of Tuesday, 223 tickets had been written this year.
Sidewalk cafés have been an added attraction to our cityscape since 1998, when Neil Stein opened Rouge on Rittenhouse Square and put small tables outside, creating something of a revolution. Within a year, about 300 restaurants followed his lead.
Along with the revolution came regulations that often are honored, to paraphrase Shakespeare, more in the breach than in the observance.
Regulations require 5 feet of clear sidewalk space on a 13-foot-wide sidewalk — think 13th Street — and half the sidewalk when it is wider than 13 feet — think Broad Street. Cafés can’t be within 15 feet of a transit stop.
Curbside seating is allowed only after 7 p.m., adjacent to a parking lane.
The purpose of the regulations is to create a safe environment.
Why restaurants take more of the sidewalk than they are entitled to is simple. More seats on the sidewalk means more patrons and more income. It is simple greed and pavement piracy.
For pedestrians, the cluttered sidewalks become a dangerous tripping hazard. The simple act of walking becomes a problem for seniors, the handicapped, mothers pushing strollers — and everyone else.
“It’s frustrating,” Butkovitz says, when people are forced to walk in the street because the sidewalk is blocked.
Fines starting at $75 are laughable. Restaurateurs know Streets doesn’t have the staff to check more than a couple of times a year.
Fines now rise to $300 after multiple offenses. Butkovitz would like to see fines escalate to thousands of dollars. He’d also permit the city to confiscate outdoor furniture of chronic offenders.
That’s a step too far for O’Donnell, for practical reasons.
“It would be labor-intensive,” he says.
Streets currently cooperates with Licenses and Inspections to pull the sidewalk café licenses of chronic offenders. “When people walk up to the restaurant and they see that red-and-white ‘cease operations’ sticker,” says O’Donnell, “that can be very effective.”
Rather than a ridiculously low $180 annual fee, O’Donnell would like to see the fee changed to $50 or $100 per seat per season.
That charge would be much more in line with the value of the license, it would raise extra money, and it might even force some of the pavement pirates to walk the plank.