TOURIST CITIES around the world have featured sidewalk cafes for as long as anyone can remember.
Whether it’s Paris and its legendary thriving café culture, or newer destinations like Greenville, S.C., stylish al fresco seating is a key attraction for visitors and locals alike.
You’d think Savannah is tailor-made for sidewalk café culture. But you’ll find precious little of it here, other than a few marquee locations downtown.
That all could change soon – but it took a global pandemic to possibly get it done.
“We have an ordinance that restricts outdoor dining impeding the right of way” on City sidewalks, explained City Manager Pat Monahan at a Council workshop last week that included a presentation on loosening up that ordinance.
A new pilot program would expand the ability of restaurants to feature sidewalk seating.
“It would encourage outdoor dining but also acknowledge that the City still needs to meet ADA requirements” for access, Monahan said.
City Director of Economic Development Manny Dominguez said because of the emergency economic nature of the initiative, time was of the essence in passing it as quickly as possible.
“We know local businesses are hurting. We know some of them are struggling and will continue to struggle,” he said. “We need to do two things at once: Keep everybody safe by maintaining social distancing, but at the same time allow for businesses to recover.”
The effort to revitalize local restaurants through outdoor dining has three parts: Sidewalk dining, occasional street closures, and so-called “parklets,” in which outdoor dining expands into parking spots in front of the establishment.
Dominguez said sidewalk dining is important because it allows restaurants to respect social distancing while expanding the number of tables served.
“Over and over, restaurant owners have told us that the number of tabletops is absolutely critical to their success,” he said.
He pointed out that because distancing guidelines reduce the number of tables, “many restaurants are choosing to stay closed or stay takeout only as strictly a business decision.”
In response, the City “will be drastically reducing and streamlining the permitting process.”
While Dominguez said City fees for outdoor dining might be waived altogether, subsequent information from the City appeared to stress that fees might only be waived for the two-week pilot program, through June 15.
Currently fees are $100 per table, per year.
The application process has been reduced to a single page.
However, the City went out of its way to say the initiative isn’t intended to help standalone bars.
“Please remember, the purpose of this Program is to enhance the opportunity for business development, not to create outdoor bars or nightclubs,” the City says at the new application page.
Street closures would be an opportunity, Dominguez said, “in some areas with particularly dense restaurant corridors.”
The idea is that nearby businesses might partner together to close a portion of a street on a temporary basis.
“They can draw up a plan and send it to the City” for permitting on a temporary basis, he said. “We want this to be market-driven. We want the businesses to come to us.”
Both the street closures and outdoor dining would be subject to landlord approval.
The third component, parklets, allows restaurants to expand tables into parking spaces out front which are public rights of way. The tables would have to be broken down at the end of the business day to allow for access, particularly to police and fire department use.
Parklets would be “limited to adjacent frontage unless they have agreements from other businesses” to expand in front of them, Dominguez said.
Several members of Council expressed concern that the measures would only be allowed for downtown businesses, but were repeatedly assured that it is a Citywide effort.
The scheduled time frame for the pilot program, after which the City would reassess the initiative, is quite short.
The earliest Council could approve the program is at its May 28 meeting, and the pilot program is set to expire June 15.