EDITORIAL: Consider all potential impacts of outdoor dining

Restaurant seating is shown in the streets of Saratoga Springs in October 2020.

Restaurant seating is shown in the streets of Saratoga Springs in October 2020.

One of the unexpected, enjoyable benefits of this horrible pandemic has been more opportunities to dine outside.

To help struggling restaurants and bars survive social distancing mandates and capacity restrictions, cities around the country temporarily allowed restaurants to expand their offerings onto sidewalks, alleys and streets.

It turns out that many more of us than we thought enjoy eating meals outdoors warmed by portable space heaters and under patio lights, breathing in fresh air and watching the people walk by.

Many cities large and small are now looking to make the outdoor dining experience last beyond the pandemic by changing existing regulations to make it easier for dining establishments to offer the option.

Saratoga Springs is now among them, with newly elected city Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran pushing for a local law to make outdoor dining permanent in the city for the next three years.

One public hearing was held Tuesday and another is scheduled on Feb. 15 to get input.

Included in the plan is prohibiting motor vehicle traffic on certain downtown streets during weekends in the warmer months.

But before committing to the change, city residents, businesses and government officials need to look carefully at the experiences —good and bad — from other places that have been exploring the same concept.

Making cities more walkable by taking cars off certain streets at certain times has always appealed to downtown planners.

But Saratoga Springs officials should consider the impacts on traffic congestion, emergency vehicle access and parking of closing streets and sidewalks to make room for restaurant tables.

Other problems have also cropped up. In some New York city neighborhoods, neighbors have complained about noise late into the night, rodent infestations and excessive trash, as well as temporary dining structures that block sidewalks and bike lanes.

Some non-restaurant businesses have complained about restaurants unfairly benefiting from the use of public space that other businesses don’t get. And there have been fights among restaurant operators in some cities competing for the same public turf.

In cities around the country and the world where outdoor dining is common, officials have stepped up enforcement of noise and code violations, particularly over restaurants that overdo it when it comes to adding structures. Spa officials will need to figure that in.

City officials also will have to consider whether having plywood and plastic structures, or even fences and flowerbeds, impedes foot traffic and hurts city businesses.

Allowing more outdoor dining isn’t as simple as just letting restaurants throw some tables on the sidewalk, and to his credit, Commissioner Moran recognizes that.

But before rushing through a long-term change in the rules, city officials need to consider and address the potential problems.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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