Let me get this off my chest: I hate tables and chairs cluttering Key West sidewalks.
I’d throw a profanity-laced screech right here, but my mother would frown since she always considered bad words to be useless filler for lazy minds. I fantasize about knocking the tables askew and pouring drinks over the customers. I think we’re clear, right?
Whew. OK, now, back to measured and sensible, which is a better position from which to make a point. What I really hate are tables and chairs that turn sidewalks into restaurant and bar extensions, leaving me no choice but to walk into the street. There’s one downtown with three or four high tops so encroached on the sidewalk that there’s no room to pass without stumbling into a customer. And, no, I’m not sharing the name of the restaurant because I like said restaurant and they’re by no means the only offender.
Sidewalks are for people (and, OK, dogs, cats, chickens and, yuck, iguanas) to walk alongside a street without getting run over by a cell-phone texting doofus in an island-inappropriate Hummer. Sidewalks are for walking — not for riding a bicycle, a scooter, a moped, a golf cart or one of those sphere hover boards; and, I don’t care if they’re electric or person-powered. Get ’em, along with the chairs and tables, off the sidewalk. I make two exceptions: strollers with a kid in it and an adult attached to it and folks with disabilities that would endanger them in the same street as the aforementioned Hummer.
Key West has dithered for years over its sidewalks. Our sidewalks are a hodgepodge cobbled together over 150 years or so. Like Goldilocks, some are too wide; some too narrow; few are just right even after reconstruction. Trees ill-advisedly planted decades ago (and often irrationally loved) send root systems pushing through the concrete. Cutouts for planting and curb cuts for driveways add to the patchwork. In every neighborhood, houses, trees and gardens encroach on the sidewalk rights-of-way though there’s not a snowball’s chance in July the city’s going to build an actual sidewalk.
In 2020, restaurants and bars without outdoor space scrambled to find ways to serve customers who, because of Covid-19 protocols, were having no part of inside dining or drinking. Key West allowed businesses to spill onto the sidewalks, testing, with limited costs and few regulations, whether customers would choose to be outside on the sidewalk or inside in the air conditioning. Why, yes, we learned, they most certainly would sit outside and they’re doing so 18 months later. Even in the heat.
So.What do we do?
The absolute last thing we need are chairs and tables, customers and wait staff tumbling about on a sidewalk. If it doesn’t walk, it doesn’t belong on a sidewalk. See exceptions above before you start fidgeting about accessibility. Which reminds me: Anyone using an assistive device is going to have to make the same end run to the street to get past that sidewalk restaurant. How can that possibly be a good thing? Not to mention it’s an ADA lawsuit in the making.
But. We seriously do need those parklet things that allow a restaurant or bar to take over a couple of parking places adjacent to and across the sidewalk from their inside spaces. Concrete barriers gussied up with potted plants, trees, awnings and tables and chairs? Cool. Heck, as far as I am concerned, an art gallery or a retail shop can have a parklet. Chris Hamilton over at Friends of Car-Free Key West explains well how these parklets work.
The first time I sat in a parklet on asphalt for a meal was in Washington, D.C., years before Covid-19. I winced the first few times a car whizzed past practically at my elbow. It was weird for, like, 15 minutes, and then I shrugged and enjoyed the company. A couple months ago Ranger Ed and I took a side trip for lunch in South Beach. We strolled block after block — on actual sidewalks — of delightful on-asphalt outdoor restaurants. It will be next to impossible to make them go away.
Want a parklet? It’s not Key West’s role to underwrite the expansion of your business. You’re getting prime real estate that gives you a competitive edge. I think you should have to ante up big bucks and not just to offset the revenue the city loses in parking fees. You need to pay rent on those spaces; let’s say some percentage of what you’re paying per square foot for your inside space. You need to carry the right insurances and follow whatever regulations ensure food, staff and customer safety. Not every business has a sidewalk with adjacent street parking, so, yeah, not everyone gets one. Unfair? Perhaps. But that’s not enough reason to forego such an elegant, simple solution.
It’s past time for the sidewalks of Key West to be once again just sidewalks. Kick the chairs and tables to the street.