TRAVERSE CITY — Jim Moore pulled out a tape measure and extended it five feet across two people who sat side-by-side in wheelchairs, demonstrating what two wheelchair users could do with a five-foot pathway around downtown sidewalk cafes.
“They can go for a walk,” Moore, the executive director of the Disability Network Northern Michigan, told city commissioners Monday.
About a half-dozen people in wheelchairs — plus advocates for the disabled — spoke about their difficulties maneuvering downtown around various existing sidewalk cafes. Commissioners who minutes earlier had maintained four feet was adequate for passersby quickly backed off as wheelchair users told their stories.
“Being in a wheelchair on some days is just so hard to get by on Front Street,” said city resident Donna Gerhard.
Steve Chapman said deteriorating sidewalks, replete with nooks, crannies and grates around trees complicate matters even more when he tries to navigate around the tables and chairs.
People in wheelchairs need more than just enough space for themselves to pass by, said Renee Louvierre-Mitchell, whose children and husband often accompany her on trips downtown.
“It’s very important that we have the five-foot clearance because I am also pushing along a stroller and I’m tagging along a family,” Louvierre-Mitchell said.
Commissioners agreed to send their outdoor sidewalk cafe ordinance back to a committee for further consideration. Commissioners and committee members Barbara Budros and Jeanine Easterday previously found that a four-foot clearance was adequate, if accompanied by a fixed fence to corral tables and chairs. They had also cited a report from city staff that going to five feet would eliminate half or all existing cafes.
Commissioner Ross Richardson, armed with a tape measure and camera, took a look for himself.
“What I found was most of the sidewalk cafes were in compliance, not only with a five-foot clearance but also a six-foot clearance, and there were just a handful of cafes that had issues,” Richardson said. “Simply by removing a table or two they could open up the sidewalk.”