An ordinance in the works could give pedestrians more room to roam on State Street, but it would come at the expense of popular outdoor seating options.
The city’s review of sidewalk cafe space — sparked by complaints from pedestrians — has bar and restaurant owners such as Hawk Sullivan nervous, although any changes would be for next season as vending licenses that govern them run from April to April.
The Vending Oversight and Downtown Coordinating committees also have begun tackling a space crunch related to businesses wanting to remove amenities such as bike racks, benches and planters to make more room for sidewalk cafes.
“There are a lot of space issues on State Street,” said Rebecca Cnare, Madison’s urban design planner. “We need to take this a piece at a time.”
The Downtown Coordinating Committee is proposing to allow sidewalk cafes on State Street to begin 8 feet from a building’s facade, resulting in an additional 2 feet of sidewalk for pedestrians. That would still leave roughly 11 feet for outdoor seating.
“I’ve received many complaints from some of my constituents about the sidewalk space,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, whose 4th District includes State Street. “Most recently, the complaints have been about sidewalk cafes and their sandwich board, because it makes it difficult for strollers and wheelchairs to traverse there.”
To put the 8 feet in perspective, most other sidewalks in Madison are less than 5 feet wide.
“But those aren’t the most heavily trafficked streets in the city,” Cnare said. “As a staff, we’re worried that that’s just not enough room left for people to walk.”
Cnare said there are more than 40 cafes on State Street this summer, though she estimates that the policy change would affect only six to eight cafes.
The effort is still in its infancy. Restaurant owners who might be affected haven’t been brought into the conversation yet.
“As an architect, I have conversation about space with my clients a lot,” said DCC member Thomas Hirsch. “The claim that the need is 2 feet, I think needs to be looked into more. We all want more space. Does 11 feet work, or is 13 feet really more magic?”
Hawk Sullivan, owner of Hawk’s Bar & Grill, 425 State St., said losing 2 feet of his outdoor seating area would cost him “thousands and thousands of dollars.”
“I have 12 tables out there, so I’d have to cut a couple,” Sullivan said. “Plus, my cafe was custom made, so that would have to be redone. I think when a couple people complain, that’s not a good enough reason to change an ordinance.”
Verveer said it’s those competing interests that the committees are struggling to deal with.
“Honestly, it would be worse if Downtown wasn’t as popular and people weren’t out enjoying State Street,” Verveer said.
To make room for all of those sidewalk cafes, city staff over the years have moved dozens of benches, bike racks and other amenities, basically playing a giant game of Tetris along State Street.
“Historically, we’ve tried to make every effort to accommodate requests to move furniture,” Cnare said. “But now, we’re really just running out of space.”
Now, the city is considering a more formal appeal process in which businesses would present their case to the Downtown Coordinating Committee to move items. From there, the committee would offer an advisory opinion to the mayor, who would make the final decision.
The city much prefers to move rather than remove amenities, Verveer said.
“If a restaurant wants a cafe and there is a bike rack, the goal is to find a new home for the bike rack near its former home,” Verveer said. “Bike parking is at a premium on State Street, so it’s vitally important to have that amenity, but street cafes make it difficult to find them new homes.”
The two committees will decide whether to make a recommendation to City Council after the Vending Oversight Committee’s next meeting in August.