Sidewalk cafes got rave reviews at an Annapolis City Council hearing last night, although some preservationists urged strict regulation of the appearance and licensing of such establishments.
"We believe sidewalk cafes can contribute to the vibrancy of city life," Ann Fligsten, who heads the Historic Annapolis Foundation, told the council. "But we are talking about public space. The public has a right to your setting reasonable regulation."
Seventeen witnesses urged the aldermen to adopt legislation making the cafes legal. Some restaurant owners, however, urged hTC the council not to "micromanage" the appearance of the cafes and to make the licensing as quick and easy as possible.
Harvey Blonder, owner of Buddy's Crabs & Ribs, said each restaurateur should be allowed to open a sidewalk cafe without city government hearings or conditional use applications. The city instead should trust business owners to follow a "menu list" of sidewalk cafe do's and don'ts, he said.
"What I would like," he said, "is [that] the politicians don't get involved," Mr. Blonder said.
The council, which last month approved a measure to allow the outdoor tables on a temporary basis, will vote on Oct. 23 on legislation making them permanent.
Although some critics of the cafes initially painted a nightmare scenario of leering, beer-slugging outdoor diners, advocates said such an unsavory element never emerged.
"Our first patrons were families with children in strollers," said Jan Hardesty, whose husband Jerry Hardesty runs O'Brien's Bar & Oyster Restaurant on Main Street. "[The sidewalk cafe] creates a wonderful feeling of community."
Owners testified that business was up between 40 and 50 percent because of the outdoor tables. They urged the council not to impose too many restrictions on the cafes' appearance.
"Each and every one of us has tried to employ whatever good taste is available to us on sidewalk cafe furniture," said Mike Guido, owner of Armadillo's Restaurant. "None of us want to do anything contrary to that."
Nevertheless, the Historic District Commission (HDC) contends the cafes would be too much a part of the historic district's streetscape to go unregulated.
"It could make or break the character of the historic district," said Donna Ware, who heads the HDC. She said the panel would not require every restaurateur to undergo hearings on its outdoor furnishings. Instead, the HDC would create lists of acceptable accouterments, such as selections of different chairs or tables, from which each business owner could choose.
Several aldermen said the success of the cafes vindicated the council's controversial move to allow them to operate temporarily. Some historic district residents had billed that approach as strong-armed politics since the cafes were placed on the downtown streets without a public hearing or committee review.
"I think we had to be creative to get something done," said Alderman Shep Tullier, D-Ward 4.
But aldermen who introduced two rival sidewalk cafe bills still are at odds over the amount of government regulation required.
Louise Hammond, D-Ward 1, supports council reviews of each cafe application. She showed slides of the various downtown cafes and urged the city to take steps to limit "visual clutter" on the downtown streets.