Streets for People / Want Sidewalk Cafés and Other Amenities? We Need to Take Some Space from Cars

On May 19 the City announced they’ll begin tighter code compliance with the Sidewalk Café Permit Ordinance. Comments from business owners and residents started popping up on Facebook. In response, a week later the City announced a June 8 public meeting on the subject. Hmm… While it seems officials just want to get a handle on making sure businesses are complying with ADA clearance rules, insurance requirements and paying the proper amount of fees, perhaps it’s time to look at the issue more broadly and relieve the stress on our overcrowded downtown sidewalks by taking away some space from cars.

A More People Centered Duval Keeps Stalling Out

We’ve seemingly talked and talked about a more people friendly Duval and adjacent commercial streets for decades and nothing seems to happen. Perhaps because of the all or nothing approach of much of our discussions, nothing gets done. On the one hand people want a car-free Duval and on the other people say it can’t be done because where will the traffic go? And so, stalemate.

To her credit Mayor Teri Johnston has been trying. First with the Mall on Duval pilot project and then with the Duval Street Revitalization Study. The mayor also spearheaded a Key West COVID Recovery Plan that aimed to assist restaurants with attempts to move some seats outside. The Mall on Duval pilot ended with acrimony all around, the Duval Study was to have begun months ago, only to be thrown back on the street for yet another RFP, and the business efforts of the COVID Plan have expired.

Why can’t these endeavors seem to gain any momentum and permanence? Fodder for another story…

City Aims to Bring Restaurants into Café Compliance

Now the City has announced its Code unit will be more readily checking up on the folks who did move some seating outdoors and ensuring their permits are in order and paid up. Said the City:

“The City of Key West’s Code Compliance will begin enforcement of the Sidewalk Café Permit Ordinance beginning in two phases. Phase one will ensure that food service establishments that want to place tables and chairs on City sidewalks have completed and submitted the application to the Planning Department ensuring that the requirements for insurance and ADA have been met. Phase two will ensure that the additional seats will be paid for starting October 1, 2021.  Permit applications are available on the City’s website here.”

The eight-page Sidewalk Café Permit Program Guidelines and Checklist and accompanying fees seem kind of onerous on their face. Take for example a restaurant that wants to put out two little tables with four total seats. This is what their fees add up to:

Example Biz             Amount         Fee________________________

$100.00                  $100.00         annual “Base Application Fee”

$2,368.80                 $592.20         one time per seat “Impact Fee”
$2,000.00                 $500.00         annual “Revocable License Fee”

The business in the example will owe $4,468.80 for year one and then $2,100.00 annually thereafter. For four seats.

While we no doubt need compliance with these issues and all businesses should pay their rightful share for using city right of way, on the other hand these businesses are trying to do exactly what people have been asking for by putting tables on the sidewalk. They are enlivening our downtown streets and helping with the pandemic by using the outdoor air. And then we go and…

Perhaps some wiser heads at City Hall noticed the seeming contradiction in tone, and that’s why one week after they announced the get-tough policy, a June 8 Public Meeting to “discuss and review” the licenses for sidewalk cafés was on the schedule. THIS seems like a better approach, doesn’t it?

Mayor Johnston’s Thoughts on the June 8 Public Meeting

When asked about the upcoming Public Meeting on Café seating Mayor Teri Johnston thoughtfully replied:

“First and foremost, Key West is a perfect venue for outdoor dining.  We are blessed with near perfect weather, and you have to admit, Key West is a terrific “people watching” community. Our restaurants were exceptionally impacted by the global pandemic and our outdoor cafe program is an opportunity to bring some economic healing for our local businesses and employees.

There are some compromises that need to be openly negotiated between the City management team and our restaurant owners to keep our outdoor café program moving forward. To that goal, City Manager Patti McLauchlin has called for a transparent working session with our restaurant owners to work through the details to assure that this popular program will thrive.”

Good for the Mayor. Let’s hope the compromises she speaks of include the fees and making it easier for businesses to participate. Knowing her, we think it will.

The Elephant in the Room: Our Downtown Sidewalks Are Too Crowded

While its good the Mayor and City Manager are working with businesses to make this program a success, there’s still the issue of the elephant in the room.

As the café table compliance issue popped up on local Facebook groups a week ago lots of opinions on various aspects were voiced. This sentiment from the always thoughtful and astute observer of Key West life, Linda Grist Cunningham of Key West Island News fame, struck me as spot on:

“When walking our narrow sidewalks, I resent having to negotiate patio tables and chairs (and customers.) There simply is not enough room on most of our sidewalks for dining, customers and those of us passing through. Sure, if the streets were closed and these dining areas moved off the sidewalks and next to the curbs, that would be fine. But is jamming up the sidewalk making it tough to impossible for pedestrians? Not so much”

And that’s the rub, isn’t it?

Our narrow sidewalks are just too jammed up. There’s newspaper and promotional boxes, menu boards and A-frame retail signs, street vendors hawking their wares, bike racks, traffic signs, light and electric poles, trash and recycle cans, and bikes locked to everything because we don’t have enough racks. Yes, there are a few restaurants with café tables and let’s not forget all the people simply walking, talking and window shopping. Sometimes the sidewalk is so crowded you have to walk single file at certain times of the day. For people with mobility issues, this must be a nightmare.

But why is this?

It’s because we’ve given over too much of our community asset, the public right of way, to car traffic and private car parking. Walk Duval Street or any of the adjacent commercial streets like Southard, Fleming, Caroline and Greene. Stop and count the number of people on the block at that moment and then the number of cars. The people outnumber the cars 10 to one. So then WHY, why on earth do we give up some much of our shared space to cars and put everything else on the sidewalk as an afterthought?

It is time this imbalance be addressed.

Here’s Three Things We Can Do to Help

While this issue of imbalance on our streets and sidewalks between people and cars should be folded into the City’s Strategic Plan and will be addressed by the Duval Street Revitalization Plan, if we ever get one, there’s some other things we could be working on in the meantime:

  1. Replace Car-Parking with Parklets

One way to “widen our sidewalks” and add more people activity to our streets quickly would be to allow businesses, organizations and the City to install parklets in space that is currently used for parking. Parklets are spots for people. Not cars. Parklets are an extension of the sidewalk out into the street, usually in what was formerly a parking space – thus the name. They are often temporary and can be built quickly and relatively inexpensively so putting them in wouldn’t preclude more permanent infrastructure changes in the future. Here’s a good story with more information and examples:

How We Get Wider Sidewalks Downtown Without Ripping Up the Streets – Parklets; February 26, 2021

  1. Pedestrianize Parts of Duval and Adjacent Blocks AND Still Allow Cars

“Shared Streets” or “Woonerfs” as the Dutch call them is a term for a street shared by cars, bicycles and people as equals. Although cars are allowed, they are restricted to a walking speed of say 5 mph and the onus for safety is entirely on the driver. Bikes cede the right of way to pedestrians. Instead of dividing a street with barriers, like curbs, sidewalk and bike lanes, everyone uses the street simultaneously and cars are forced to drive slowly. Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA is an example.

One could do this by setting the speed limit on the designated blocks to 5 mph, getting rid of the parking spaces, installing signs saying Pedestrian Zone and putting up a few barriers to protect any parklets, or other outdoor street furniture. Here’s a story with examples:

Eight Things We Can Do to Pedestrianize Duval and Still Allow Cars; March 5, 2021

  1. Create A Downtown Business Improvement District

This item may take a bit longer than the first two. But if there’s one thing that this whole episode of the City trying to corral restaurants into compliance on the Sidewalk Café Permit Program brings into focus, is that our little Mom n Pop businesses need an organization that can help them with these issues. A BID or Business Improvement District would be their advocate and would help coordinate a response and participation. As it is now, it is every business for itself in trying to deal with the City and a whole host of other issues, all while trying to do what they do best and run a business. Here’s our story with lots of analysis, details and examples:

Do Key West Commercial Areas Need Business Improvement Districts (BIDS)? – Part 2: What BIDS in Key West Might Look Like; April 23, 2021

Let’s Use the June 8 Public Meeting to Start Addressing the Imbalance Between Cars and People Downtown

While the City’s Public Meeting on June 8 is to “discuss and review” the licenses for sidewalk cafés, this program won’t be a success unless we begin to address the elephant in the room.

Perhaps we can use this event to broaden the dialogue.

People want a more pedestrian friendly downtown. People want to see more sidewalk cafés, benches, street furniture, art, trees, and more on Duval and adjacent blocks. But we can’t put it all on our already overcrowded and narrow sidewalks. Cars have the privilege of way more than their fair share of our community’s public right of way. Enrique Penalosa sums it up this way: “a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally as important as one in a $30,000 car.” It is about time we address the grave imbalance in the way we use our streets.

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. He’s a native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.