The rise of new restaurants’ outdoor dining areas is adding to the bustle of the sidewalks of downtown Columbia, but some are technically violating city ordinances.
The Downtown Community Improvement District is aiming to change ordinances governing sidewalk dining to ensure all restaurants comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards and can accommodate additional foot traffic downtown.
Katie Essing, executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District, led a discussion Tuesday night about possible ordinance changes at the Downtown Columbia Leadership Council’s meeting.
The sidewalk ordinances are almost a decade old, and Essing said they need to be updated. Restaurants are doing too many different things with their outdoor dining areas, she said, so the language of the ordinances needs to be clarified.
Restaurants must leave a clear 60-inch path along the sidewalk if they decide to have an outdoor seating area. If a restaurant wants to have a barrier for its dining area, they have to use either black steel chains and poles or picket-style fencing, and it cannot be permanently anchored to the sidewalk.
“Overall, the Downtown CID very much embraces sidewalk dining,” she said. “It adds to a vibrant street-edge, people like it, it adds entertainment ... But we do get concerned when there’s not enough access on the sidewalk.”
Essing mentioned that Tellers Gallery and Bar and Shakespeare’s Pizza are two examples of businesses following the guidelines, but Room 38 and Fuzzy’s Tacos are not.
Columbia Community Development Director Tim Teddy said Room 38’s dining area constricts the sidewalk to be less than 60 inches, and Fuzzy’s Tacos has a different style of fencing and permanent outdoor dining structures.
Essing suggested imposing a fee on restaurants that want to have outdoor dining areas, adding she talked with a few places that said they would be willing to pay a fee around $50. Another idea was requiring an annual permit for outdoor dining areas, which would allow for the permit to be revoked after a year if the restaurant does not follow ordinances or if there are complaints.
Council member Janet Hammen said she is concerned about the idea of using a complaint-driven process for enforcing the sidewalk ordinances.
“I feel it is very unfair in many instances,” Hammen said. “As a consumer, downtown and in my neighborhood, I see many violations that go unaddressed year after year because it is complaint-driven.”
Council member John Clark said the city uses the complaint process too much and it hasn’t served the community well. He also mentioned the city doesn’t have enough resources to be enforcing the ordinance at taxpayer expense, so he said he would like the CID to pick up the cost of enforcing proper outdoor dining areas for the public.
“I like the idea of the annual permit,” Clark said. “I like the emphasis on enforcing it. I just don’t think the city government and its taxpayers should be having to pay for any of it. This is a benefit to the general public, but it is a particular benefit to downtown businesses.”
Essing plans to take this feedback to the Downtown CID operations committee meeting at 3:30 p.m. on May 17 at the CID office. Once the District decides on what changes to make to the ordinances, they then will work with the city to make finalized updates.