Council to vote on proposal for sidewalk cafes

September 10, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

Sidewalk cafes, long a taboo in Annapolis' historic downtown, could line the streets before the end of the month if a controversial resolution wins city council approval tomorrow.

"Cafes are coming soon," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a co-sponsor of the measure. "They could be coming to town almost immediately."

Such statements anger historic district residents, who contend that without carefully crafted guidelines sidewalk cafes could turn downtown into a late-night outdoor party zone.

"This is just getting to be standard practice by the city council -- they just throw the code out and do what they want to do," said Alderman Louise Hammond, who represents the historic district.

The resolution would allow the cafes from Sept. 25 to Dec. 15, while the council debates a law allowing them permanently. The legislation allowing permanent status is unlikely to come up for votes until later in the fall.

Opposition has frustrated Mr. Snowden and other aldermen who have tried to implement sidewalk cafe laws for the past year. Now, the majority of the council appears ready to approve the outdoor establishments on a temporary basis.

"We have had sidewalk cafe bills sitting in the Planning and Zoning Department since January," said Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff. "The wheels of bureaucracy can run slow at times, but we may be able to grease them."

Some city officials are accusing pro-development forces on the council of trying to change the Colonial era neighborhood behind their backs, without public hearings or committee oversight.

"If they can pass this resolution, then it sets a very bad precedent," warned Richard Hillman, a former mayor who heads the city's planning commission. "Why can't they then just pass a resolution establishing a temporary hotel for three years?"

Supporters of the cafe bill say it is the best help the city can give to local restaurant owners who are losing money during the Main Street reconstruction project. The cafes would come in time for several citywide festivals, including next month's boat shows.

"I can't see why we wouldn't open a sidewalk cafe," said Harvey Blonder, who owns Buddy's Crabs & Ribs on Main Street. "I get the sense the city council is becoming much more friendly, not just to the local residents, but to the businesses as well."

Restaurant owners are confident that patrons will want to eat on Main Street despite the chain link fence that obstructs views, the rattle of jackhammers and the foul smells that occasionally fill the air during work along sewer lines.

Although some historic district residents opposed new Main Street, believing the wider sidewalks invited outdoor dining and a theme park atmosphere, some neighbors said they don't mind giving the outdoor cafes a trial run.

"I say, 'Bravo, let's give it a try,' " said Gilbert Renaut, president of the Ward 1 Residents' Association. "If my membership disagrees, I will be very surprised."

When the council takes up legislation to allow sidewalk cafes permanently, it is expected to debate how late the establishments could stay open, how much sidewalk space they could use and whether they could serve alcohol.

The long-term sidewalk cafe bill with the most support on the council -- a measure sponsored by Alderman Ellen O. Moyer -- also is favored by restaurant owners, who say it does not attempt to micromanage their establishments.

But even if the sidewalk cafe bill passes, some restaurant owners won't be satisfied. They want to reverse even more laws limiting downtown development.

"Sidewalk cafes are fine," Mr. Blonder said. "But rooftop dining is the way to go. That's what we really want."

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