To the editor:
European-style outdoor dining and patio seating has become part of Delaware’s street life in recent years. More than a dozen downtown restaurants now have fenced-off areas in their frontage zone, with tables and chairs where people can eat “al fresco.” Patio seating gives consumers more choices and has helped to enliven Delaware’s downtown area during the summer months.
However, in many instances, outdoor dining seems to have gone over the top. Some businesses are lucky and were able to build patios on their own property (Amato’s, Bun’s, Bag of Nails), but others have taken over so much of the sidewalk that pedestrians are now relegated to the narrow strip at the edge of the street where they have to compete with street trees, traffic signs, utility poles, benches, planters, bicycle racks, advertisement displays, fire hydrants, mailboxes, trash cans, parking meters and recycling bins.
On a normal day, that is not much of a problem unless you are visually impaired. But at a recent farmers market event, there was such a terrible bottleneck on the sidewalk in the area of the Hamburger Inn and the Typhoon Asian Fusion Bistro that no one could move forward or backward. For a while, Delaware ceased to be a “walkable” city.
In this kind of gridlock situations, people with wheelchairs and strollers, or children and dogs would be hopelessly lost. There would be no way for emergency personnel to enter or leave a building. Sidewalk congestion is a serious public-safety issue that needs to be addressed.
Delaware does require a five-foot pedestrian clearance zone. Most restaurants adhere to that mandate, but the rule does not stipulate that the area has to be unobstructed and free of all obstacles. I have done some measurements, and in several cases the five-foot clearance zone is either ignored or obstructed with garbage containers, planters, A-frame display boards, and the like. Again, on a normal day that is not a problem, but at a popular event with high pedestrian volume it creates the potential for unsafe situations.
On such days the five-foot rule is clearly inadequate, especially along busy South Sandusky Street. Serious bottlenecks around Barley Hopster, Son of Thurman, Hamburger Inn and Typhoon Bistro are common even though technically these businesses meet the five-foot mandate.
I am therefore suggesting consideration of a different rule that would supplant the current ordinance. Delaware’s sidewalk-use permit should stipulate that patio seating shall not encompass more than 50 percent of the width of a sidewalk in the downtown area, as suggested by the little line drawing in the city’s guidelines. Typically, however, the outdoor dining areas usurp much more than that.
Keep in mind that sidewalks are important public spaces, created for the benefit of everyone. Some encroachment is acceptable, but authorities must balance safety and accessibility with business interests and commercial prosperity.
Lastly, for whatever it’s worth, the National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends a pedestrian through-zone in crowded downtown and commercial areas that is at least eight feet wide.