Sidewalk cafes belong in Annapolis Rigid regulations aren't necessary to make them work


THE VERDICT IS IN on sidewalk cafes. After a trial period, it's clear that sidewalk cafes are not going to turn the state capital into a den of iniquity. They're working just fine. They're charming. They add to the vibrant atmosphere that makes Annapolis so appealing. And customers like them. Restaurant owners say business has increased by 40 to 50 percent since the trial period began a few weeks ago -- news that is especially welcome considering what a struggle businesses have been enduring since the reconstruction of Main Street began last April.

There's little doubt that the City Council, a majority of which has favored outdoor cafes all along, will vote in favor of legislation allowing them permanently. The only question is how strictly the council will regulate them. Some Ward One residents and advocates want a rigorous case-by-case review, but this seems regulatory overkill.

The recipe for a sidewalk cafe that doesn't detract from the streetscape is simple: Cafes ought to close promptly at a reasonable hour -- sometime between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Owners must leave enough right-of-way so pedestrians can safely and comfortably walk along the sidewalk. A maximum number of tables should be set. And owners should have to pay the city a fee for the privilege. Opponents' fears about appearance -- that without standards the city soon will be dotted with tacky cafes -- are probably groundless. Judging by the character of most downtown restaurants, it's unlikely that any outdoor eateries will look unappealing. Besides, simple vTC economics are at play here. The clientele for which these owners are aiming isn't looking to eat on rusted tables with flies buzzing about. They want something nice.

That said, the Annapolis Historic District Commission's suggestion to make sure outdoor cafes look appealing by creating a list of acceptable outdoor furnishings isn't unreasonable -- provided, of course, that the list isn't limited to expensive wrought-iron tables with bevelled glass tops. There's no reason why simple, inexpensive resin tables wouldn't do just fine, especially when prettied up with some linens or flowers on top. Some reasonable requirements for furnishings shouldn't inconvenience owners. The guidelines also might make cafes more palatable to residents who fear the worst.

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