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Fiasco Alfresco; how Washington's greedy restaurant owners managed to shack up.

Over the decades, the Europeans have given us lots of stuff we'd be better off without, Like World War 1. Or phony Oxbridge accents. Like Fellini. Like Princess Di. But one export worthy of our gratitude is the outdoor cafe. As any owner of a Eurail pass can attest, outdoor cafes are one of the small but transforming pleasures that give cities life. They soften urban edges. They make the streets warmer and faces friendlier.

But the outdoor cafes in Washington, D.C. , are falling prey to what might be called the greenhouse effect: lass and awning enclosures that more and more restaurants use to cover their sidewalk extensions. These plywood, steel, and smoked glass contraptions squeeze the sidewalk, wringing life from the curbsides they're supposed to invigorate. The city's cafes are looking increasingly less like the Paris that Washington's visionary planner, Pierre L'Enfant, imagined, and more and more like mini-malls.

What's worse, taxpayers subsidize these glassedin hovels by offering restaurants public space at firesale prices. At the same time, a city law meant to promote legitimate outdoor cafes has backfired and shut some of them down. This has been the case particularly in the newly developed stretch of historic Pennsylvania Avenue, where a cluster of cafes might bring some romance to the canyon of Marriotts and anonymous office buildings.

How did the nation's capital exchange a forest of Cinzano parasols for a jumble of plywood shanties? Chalk it up to a weak city council. An incompetent city bureaucracy. And greedy restaurant owners, grabbing public space to peddle their grilled trout in year-round, climate-controlled, fluorescent-lit comfort.

The Astrodomization of Washington's sidewalk cafes may not rank as one of the great urban crises of our time. (Washington still has more open cafes than enclosed ones.) But it's a loss nonetheless. It's another of countless examples of public property being appropriated for private gain, another time when the touches that really could have made us a kinder, gentler nation got razed.

Curbside convertibles

While Parisians have enjoyed sidewalk cafes since they first enjoyed sidewalks (in the 1850s), Washingtonians had to wait until 1961 to get theirs. The thirst began during the European vacation boom of the 1950s. Millions of middle-class Americans, riding the wave of postwar prosperity, sauntered through Europe on their first visit as tourists. As the charms of sidewalk schmoozing took hold, Washingtonians wanted cafes to call their own. (And they desperately needed something to add life to the city's nighttime sterility.) What they got was Bassin's, an outdoor eatery that brought new meaning to the word generic. While its Pennsylvania Avenue patrons were in no danger of thinking they were on the Champs Elysees, at least they were, finally, outdoors.

But the cafe caught city bureaucrats by surprise. Hey, they said, this restaurant's setting up tables on our sidewalk-what do we do? Legally, a restaurant had as much right to expand onto the sidewalk as a shoe store had to rope off the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the city recognized that, unlike loafers on Lincoln, cafes on the corner have cachet. The city passed a law establishing its jurisdiction over the sidewalks and set modest rental rates for use of sidewalk space. The city got its rent, the cafes got their sidewalks, and Washingtonians got more interesting and pleasant streets. By 1977, the city had about 100 outdoor cafes.

That's when trouble arose in Eden. The Paradise Cafe decided that cheap sidewalk space was too good to leave to the summer months. Why not enclose it and boost profits year-round? So up went a plywood shack with plexiglass windows, jutting out toward ,the street. Now they could air-condition it in the summer. They could heat it in the winter. They could commandeer that sidewalk space come rain or shine. As for the shine, the sun and breezes that were part of the original cafe allure. . .well, if you want nature, take a hike.

This tumorous growth bore about as much relation to an outdoor cafe as a tanning parlor does to Palm Beach. Outraged, the city took the restaurant to court-and lost. A municipal judge ruled that the existing cafe law, which made no mention of enclosures at all, was too vague to be enforced. Vindicated, the restaurant, now known as Rumors, continues to run its mall-like "cafe.'"

And the bad idea took root. Rival restaurateurs, watching Rumors rake it in, decided not to be left out (literally) in the cold. Up sprang more shacks on public sidewalks. Down went the delightful vision of an open, breathing city.

And in stepped the city council to make things worse. After watching cafes shack up for four years, Councilmember David Clarke tried to establish some guidelines. But he wasn't savvy enough to beat back the greedy restaurant owners. The council should have barred any enclosed structure on public sidewalks, period. "Restaurant owners," Clarke should have said, "read my lips: No enclosed cafes."

Instead, the law was hopelessly moderate. Trying to let restaurants have it both ways, the law envisioned the cafe equivalent of the convertible--a flimsy structure that could be thrown open for the sunshine and sealed off on inclement days. The enclosures are supposed to have no internal plumbing or food storage facilities and be removable within 24 hours' notice. They're supposed to be enclosed only during the winter (October 15 to May 15). Or during the summer if the temperature goes above 90 or below 60 degrees. Or if it rains. O "if the National Weather Service predicts . . . the chance of rain is 50 percent or more." In other words, the holes in the law are big enough to drive a sidewalk cafe through. And over the objections of Clarke, the council added a grandfather clause that made legal the Rumors tumor and its imitators.

This reform effort has wiped out the ugly sidewalk enclosures about as well as AFDC has wiped out poverty. Of die 24 enclosed cafes in the city, 15 broke ground after the new law was passed. The city's Public Space Committee, which has final approval over cafe permits, has taken a, let's say, liberal view of the regulations. Presumably the House of Hunan's expansion onto the K Street sidewalk fits the committee's vision of cafe dining: stucco walls, airconditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting, and windows that don't open. Collapsible within 24 hours' notice? Sure, with the help of the Redskins' offensive line. "It is designed-even though it looks permanent-so that it could be unbolted and removed if it had to be," said David Kessler, a member of the Public Space Committee. Ironically, K Street, packed with the city's top law firms, is one place that probably should have no cafes at all: the crowded sidewalks are just too narrow. Now, passersby squeeze into the few feet of remaining sidewalk space while the city's powerlawyers scarf platefuls of $12.50 Hunan Lamb (or $24.95 Peking Duck for the big spenders) in sealed-off splendor. Ahh-springtime in D.C. !

The $49,000 sidewalk

The weather decrees get enforced about as well as the 24-hour rule. Technically, it's illegal for the cafes to stay shuttered when the temperature is between 60 and 90 degrees on rain-free days. But Kessler, the chief of public space, doesn't have his inspector check the windows. "It's very hard to enforce," Kessler said. "It's based on the merit system-we expect the owners of the adjacent shops if it's a nice day to say, 'Hey, open up your windows.'" But it's not hard to enforce at all. It simply takes a car, a thermometer, and a map. A Washington Monthly staff member tackled the course in midday traffic and checked all 24 enclosed cafes. Tim& One hour, 59 minutes.

The city has encouraged these sidewalk intrusions not just through lax regulation but also, in some cases. through bargain-basement prices. The city set up a capricious pricing scheme that links the rent paid by sidewalk cafes to the value of the adjacent property and building. That means if the restaurant happens to be attached to a high-rise office tower, its rates will be sizable. Another cafe on the same block that juts out from a slummy townhouse, pays less for its patch of sidewalk. So while rent for an average downtown restaurant runs from $25 to $40 per square foot, Luigi's, a 19th street Italian cafe attached to a nothing-special building, gets its sidewalk annexation for only $7 per square foot. In the heart of Georgetown, perhaps the city's most coveted real estate, Au Pied de Cochon, a self-styled Parisian bistro, slapped on an extension that looks more like a terrarium than a cafe. Cost? Despite Georgetown's elan, zoning laws keep the building heights low and they are therefore worth less than downtown office towers. So Au Pied de Cochon got its extension for about $7.50 per square foot-the price of a modest shag carpet. Thankfully, Rumors, which provoked this law, is one of the few restaurants being taxed at a sensible rate, paying about $37 a square foot.

The law has also backfired not only by increasing the number of enclosed cafes, but by deterring the open air cafes it tried to promote. By tying rental prices to the value of adjoining land and buildings, the law has made it prohibitive for many of the city's best hotels and restaurants to open outdoor cafes. Often, it's just too expensive.

This is especially true on the recently redeveloped section of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. Its wide stretches of new sidewalks and miniature plazas are ready-made for outdoor cafes, where they could be easily reached by the city's huge tourist population. Cafes could help create a nightlife in the revamped neighborhood. So it's no wonder that officials of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, the federal agency overseeing the project, have urged hotel owners to open them.

But the hotels say the city rents are just too high. Muneer Deen, general manager of the Hotel Washington at 15th and Pennsylvania, said the hotel planned to put tables on the sidewalk until the city sent a $49,000 bill for seven months' sidewalk rent. So much for the Cafe d'Hotel Washington. Other top downtown hotels have run into the same problem. "With city-owned property, you just can't afford to do business," said Phillip Carr of the Oliver T. Carr Company, which owns the Willard Hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania.

The city's Office of Planning in June came to the same conclusion-that the law was keeping sidewalk cafes off Pennsylvania Avenue, where everyone wants them"The calculation of rates is discouraging them in high-value areas," said David Colby, the office's chief of urban design. Colby offers two options: either reduce rents across the board (a fine option, giving even Rumors cheap rent if it shuts the shack and goes straight), or isolate the downtown area and charge a different rate. Colby said he passed the report on to Wylie L. Williams Jr., the deputy mayor for economic development, and, "I haven't heard anything about it since." Cheryl Crowell, acting as spokesperson for Williams's office, said a task force is studying the issue, but "I don't know when they will conclude."

If you're planning a trip to Washington next summer, don't get your hopes up for much outdoor dining. "We've tried to get the executive branch to get off their ass and do something," said George Collier, legislative assistant to Councilmember Betty Ann Kane. "But unless there's a major public outcry, things arc going to galumph along the way they are."
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Title Annotation:sidewalk cafes
Author:Murphy, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1988
Words:1925
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