Sidewalk cafes – friend or foe to pedestrians?

At their Oct 14th, 2010, meeting, the Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee of the Minneapolis City Council will vote on the application by the Varsity Theater for a sidewalk cafe outside of their Dinkytown property.

Take a moment to peruse the plan offered as an attachment to the committee item:  it appears to swap a slalom course for the footpath, requiring the navigator of Dinkytown to dodge 18″ planters, tree gates and parking meters.  The plan depicts a narrowing of the pedestrian zone to 5′ 6″ in one spot, which is widely considered about the minimum for two people walking side-by-side.  Given the average Blood Alcohol Content of the denizens of Dinkytown, how will the collision rate of this sidewalk be affected?

The actual conditions will likely not be as apocalyptic as the plan looks at first glance.  In general the effect will likely be a reduction from an 18 foot sidewalk to about a 13 foot sidewalk, although if the tree grate is not maintained (unfortunately the most likely future), there will be a significant reduction in space.  And space is not something pedestrian-packed Dinkytown has in spades (15th Ave SE north of University Ave SE, about a block and a half away from the proposed sidewalk cafe, had the third- and fifth-highest pedestrian counts in 2009 and 2008, respectively).

What worries me most about a possible approval of a sidewalk cafe in front of the Varsity Theater is the blow it would strike against an already-battered Pedestrian Master Plan and its Pedestrian Design Guidelines.  The site of the proposed cafe is squarely within the Dinkytown Activity Center, and the Pedestrian Design Guidelines list a 6-foot “Through Walk” zone as “acceptable” for Activity Centers.  Unfortunately we have already seen too many projects that ignore these guidelines since their adoption last year.  Most egregious is the sidewalk cafe on the sleepy side street of Hennepin Ave, at 6th St downtown, the plan for which narrows the pedestrian space to just under 6 feet in several locations, and to 4’4″ in one particularly heinous spot.

(p. 68 of the Pedestrian Master Plan gives a general rule about sidewalk cafes:   “Generally sidewalk cafes
are allowed on sidewalks 12 feet or narrower if a 4 foot clear, unobstructed Through Walk Zone
is maintained and on sidewalks wider than 12 feet if a minimum 6 foot Through Walk Zone is maintained.”  It is unclear if this is a written rule that public works conveys to applicants for sidewalk cafes or if it is an observation made about existing cafes.)

There appears to be an opportunity to provide input about the proposed Varsity Theater sidewalk cafe.  In addition, it is never a bad idea to contact your councilmember.  Whether you think a sidewalk cafe boosts the vitality of a streetscape or shrinks your stepping space, let them know that you are paying attention to what happens beneath your feet.

One comment on “Sidewalk cafes – friend or foe to pedestrians?

  1. My vote is always for vitality first. Street cafes are great! I want more of them! I know it’s too bad if the sidewalks shrink in size, but more people on the street is better. Dinkytown needs way more sidewalk dining in general.

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