Traverse City Record-Eagle

Our Views

June 20, 2014

Editorial: Sidewalk cafes fine, if they're not blocking the way

What’s in a foot? Much more than 12 inches, at least to those who try to navigate Traverse City’s congested downtown sidewalks during outdoor cafe season.

Several wheelchair users showed up at Monday’s city commission meeting to oppose a city committee’s pitch to create four-foot setbacks for so-called sidewalk cafes, local restaurant outcroppings that increasingly dot downtown streets, particularly Front, Union and State streets.

Wheelchair users and advocates for the disabled offered insight from their unique vantage point and convinced commissioners that four feet isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and that a five-foot berth not only is preferable, it’s downright necessary to properly traverse downtown sidewalks.

Commissioners wisely agreed to take a deep breath and reconsider the four-foot notion. They ought to step back and give some real thought to what they’re trying to accomplish with the sidewalk cafes study and whether this sprawling trend is something they should push or gently curtail.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with local restaurant operators expanding with a handful of tables onto the sidewalk during the few months that weather permits al fresco dining. After all, they’re looking to grab all the tourist dollars they can, and more tables certainly can mean more customers. Outdoor dining also at least subliminally fosters the city’s foodie destination reputation.

But anyone who regularly walks either side of East Front Street from mid-June to Labor Day knows well that sidewalks can transform into a nearly impassable maze of gawking tourist families spread shoulder-to-shoulder across the sidewalk and apparently blissfully unaware of anyone or anything else around them.

Those who truly need to get somewhere on Front Street during prime tourist time must hone a sort of slalom approach to foot travel, a veer here around parking meters, a sharp cut there to a tight opening when tourist family suddenly halts to accept a free sample of popcorn.

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