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Dear PoPville – Is Outdoor Seating Getting Out of Control?

by Prince Of Petworth — March 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm 86 Comments

Dear PoPville,

Now that spring is upon us, restaurants throughout DC are opening up their sidewalk seating. I’m all for outdoor eating (and seating), but it has to be set up in a rational way.
Presumably the restaurants have obtained permits to use X square feet of sidewalk space for outdoor seating. But i have a feeling these outdoor seating areas quickly become larger than authorized, or are configured in ways that block the entire sidewalk. For me, it’s a minor inconvenience to have to slow my pace and squeeze through a single file line to get through the sliver of open sidewalk that remains, along with other pedestrians. But for someone in a wheelchair, the scenario in the attached pic would mean crossing the street to continue. What is the cleaning lady pushing the rolling cart going to do? In fact, the guy in the blue shirt is actually just a pedestrian, not a restaurant customer. He walked straight through this table config at America Eats Tavern.

What’s the best way to officially voice concern about some of these out of control outdoor seating areas?

  • Shhhhh – Just squeeze through, it’s a minor inconvenience to have to slow pace.

    By the way, your pic does not support your claim. There seems to be more than enough room for the cleaning lady and any wheelchairs seeking to pass.

    • Anonymous

      Do you not see the dirt area where a tree was obviously removed and will most likely be replaced with a tree and probably a tree box?

      • Anonymous

        Now we see it – signed everyone in this thread. Wasn’t mentioned in the post and honestly do you know for a fact that there’s going to be a tree/tree box?

        • Anonymous

          I know no facts of the landscaping of DC but what I do know is there looks to be a pattern of trees on that street, and many others, from the image. That tree probably died and was removed and will eventually be replaced.

          I am all for outdoor seating, I thoroughly enjoy it. Sometimes it’s just a bit excessive.

      • And?

        Assuming they have their seating set properly according to their permit, you think every restaurant should be held accountable for debris and obstacles on the sidewalk… I don’t follow.

        How does that whole in the sidewalk relate to the question?

        • Anonymous

          The hole in the sidewalk relates to the question because it is mentioned in the commentary.

          “But for someone in a wheelchair, the scenario in the attached pic would mean crossing the street to continue. What is the cleaning lady pushing the rolling cart going to do?”

          The writer doesn’t specifically mention the hole but I assume that he is commenting on it with the above statements.

      • rockcreekrunner

        I still think a wheelchair and the cleaning lady could get through if there was a treebox. They’d just have to angle a little bit.

        • 14thstgal

          Agree. Dirt/tree box aside there still looks to be enough room to get by. Not two way traffic but certainly a wheelchair or cleaning cart could.

    • Randall Stevens

      Why should people in wheelchairs infringe upon my love of eating outdoors?? They already get the best parking spaces!

    • Anonymous

      easier said than done… especially on a busy street… have you been to Ocean Drive in Miami? It’s a single file line, the whole way down with annoying restaurant employees asking if you’d like to sit for a drink or a meal…. no, i just want to walk on the sidewalk

      • OH come on now. DC can hardly be compared to Ocean Drive in Miami. That is an entirely different animal.

        Besides, I have been there, and know that avenue. If you find those people so annoying, just walk on the other side of the street. No restaurants or annoying employees on that side.


    • O.P.

      OP here. Expected some of this backlash from folks who didn’t take the time to read my orig email. Outdoor seating is great, I just don’t want restaurants to creep outside their permitted space and block our sidewalk–personal annoyance for me and serious, potentially illegal impact on the disabled. No specific attack on America Eats was intended; this was just one example I saw recently (I’m sure it’s not the worst…as the poster below mentions, Austin Grill’s sidewalk seating is a total circus). Seems like talking to the manager is a good first step to take, and I’d encourage others who notice “sidewalk creep” to bring the issue to the attention of the restaurant manager. Especially if a wheelchair wouldn’t have enough room, or would have to go off-road, to pass.

      • ClevelandDave

        +1 to the OP. What also pisses me off are places that take up major portions of the sidewalk but don’t have any seating set up (can you say POSTE) all year long. Please. Give it up when not in use for months at a time.

  • 14thstgal

    It looks to me like there is plenty of room for a person in the wheelchair or the lady with the cleaning cart to pass through. I for one, wish there was more outdoor seating!

  • anonymous

    Are you seriously THAT inconvienced by this? Just keep walking, life goes on, there are bigger problems in the world. Outdoor seating is something the vast majority of people love.

    • C’mon!

      I agree. Haha. I never considered Sidewalk tables that much of an inconvenience. I think the more the better personally. “Out-of-control” was not the first adjective that came to my mind. The things people find to complain about. Now if you want to talk about a nuisance. What about those damn cupcake lines!

      • The more grave matter is that they won’t let me sit at the outdoor seating indefinitely and play backgammon. (teehee)

        • Anonymous

          Excellent backgammon reference! love it.

        • imonaboat

          This comment wins all the awards.

    • Anonymous

      I often find the sidewalk squeeze to be a nuisance as a pedestrian when it encroaches on curb. Operators are recommended to have 10′, but legally required to leave 6′ of clear unobstructed sidewalk space from curb or nearest obstruction – ie tree box, parking meter or bike rack). I have no issue with the sidewalk cafes themselves, but it’s often abused with ad hoc borders that squeeze space in violation of the permit.

      While I sympathize with those restricted by disability, I also don’t like that these patios become de facto smoking sections for many bars/restaurants. Their patrons can’t legally smoke indoors, so the establishment creates an outdoor haven. Given that many outdoor seating areas are clustered, it means walking past a series of smoking sections, with the only alternative being a significant detour.

      I’d have a lot more tolerance of these spots if the operators would make them smoke free. It’s disingenuous for the many smokers to extol this arrangement, when they often ruin it for those who don’t want the exposure either at or in proximity to the establishment.

  • Anonymous

    Looks like enough room if you pass under the left side of the umbrella where blue dress lady is walking.

    • ah

      Well, sure, but you’d have to indignantly ram the customer seated at the table, who likely has pushed the chair back from the table some, and perhaps angled it a bit so as to get a little more space. But if I were in a WC, that’s exactly what I’d do, and loudly mutter under my breath as well.

  • sherman

    I propose the establishment of an Outdoor Seating Enforcement Authority (OSEA), deputized with OSEA badges issued by MPD, to go along with a misplaced sense of entitlement to corral these restaurant scofflaws into following the allowed seating area limits to the centimeter. OSEA Special Agents can traverse the District on Segways with sirens and carry around tape measures and ticket books and issue violations at their discretion.

    Or we could just let this one go and try to improve our failing schools or hire real cops?

    • AGREED!
      We must also provide funding for a citizens OSEA brigade armed with cheap digital cameras to tour the district, take photos of the offending sites, and submit alarmist posts to neighborhood blogs, alerting our fair city’s innocent citizens of the lurking menace.

  • I genuinely can’t think of anywhere in DC that I’d consider outdoor seating to be out of control or a problem. Is there a specific street that is it an issue?

    I think DC in general has way less outdoor seating than other densely populated big cities.

    • Anonymous

      Austin Grill in Penn Quarter/Chinatown…boyfriend and I had to navigate dogs on leashes, waiters/waitresses with trays full of food, seated restaurant patrons, and other pedestrians in a space about 3 feet wide.

      • Also anonymous


      • Huh. Maybe I just don’t spend enough time in Penn Quarter.

        • Anonymous

          I can’t blame you. Unless you’re headed to a hockey game or a basketball game, here’s very little down there for anyone but tourists.

          • Anonymous

            Hmmm, there’s a couple of restaurants in the area that I enjoy. Sorry I never realized they were only for tourists.

          • Yeah I share share this sentiment (with a few exceptions).

          • Yeah I share this sentiment (with a few exceptions).

          • Anonymous

            little in that area except basketball or hockey? what a sad thing to say. or utterly ignorant. i can’t decide.

        • Anonymous

          Usually pedestrians are a bigger impediment/obstacle when walking in Penn Quarter.

    • ET

      The south side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 2nd and 5th are THE WORST. The sidewalks a narrow and since most of the places along there are restaurants with outdoor seating the seems to creep closer and closer to the curb every spring there are places where you almost have to walk in the tree boxes to continue down the street.

      • ET

        I should have said this was on Penn Ave SE.

        • Eduardo

          next year, i hope you add september’s (indian lakes) to the list. they have a bleu eshcee-stuffed burger that is excellent. btw, i do hope to ping you once the weather gets nice to check out the stump smoker.~ carpetbagger

      • I think Adams Morgan was pretty bad when it came to outdoor seating – especially on side going towards the Ellington Bridge. Hopefully this new streetscape they are putting in will solve those problems.

    • Anonymous

      Meridian Pint on 11th Street.

      I’ve been complaining about this issue for years now. Sidewalks are for the public, not private businesses making a buck. Now, if they give back a huge chunk of each profit they make from someone eating outside to build parks or something, over and above usual taxes, I’m okay with it.

      • Seriously? The sidewalk outside Meridian Pint is like twenty feet wide! The only people inconvenienced by the outdoor seating there are the hobos who have lost a little staggering space, and who were the only ones walking around here before MP & other places on 11th St. came in!

  • em

    It’s hard to tell how much space there is between the tree(less) pit and the tables and umbrella, but it certainly looks like it would be tough to circumnavigate the tree pit with a wheelchair or even just a lot of pedestrians going in opposite directions.

  • Joe Blow

    Speak to the manager if you have a problem. If you sic the DC regulatory agencies on them not only will pleasant sidewalk seating be eliminated, but they may – just for fun and bureaucratic sport – decide to make the restaurant’s life miserable.

  • Anonymous

    OP raises a good point about wheelchair accessibility. I’ve actually spent some time confined to a wheelchair and can attest that the city pedestrian walkways take on an entirely different view from that perspective. A wheelchair could not pass through the opening indicated in the picture, unless it when “offroad” through the dirt patch presumably reserved for a non-existent tree. And the patio seating set-up depicted in the photograph is not out of the ordinary in DC. It really is a huge inconvenience to wheelchair-bound residents — who have the same rights as everybody else — to have to reverse course and cross the street to use the other side of the sidewalk in such instances.

    • I totally get that, but OP is not in a wheelchair. The level of complaining, at least on this blog, is totally out of control. Why would you feel the need to officially voice concern about something so minor that has no effect on you. Why not just pop in the resturant and ask them to move the tables back a bit if its that much of a problem instead of causing a hinderance for other establishments trying to get a permit?

      • Anonymous

        Memememememememememe. This is what’s wrong with our culture. We criticize people for thinking of others, for being selfless and considering that those less fortunate than themselves have a tougher life, which is ignored by just about everyone. Everyone should stop and think, “Hey, what I’m doing is going to make a wheelchair-bound or blind person have a hellish time of it, so I had better not do that.”

        • anonymous


        • Anonymous


      • ClevelandDave

        Because while when it is not busy and easy to pass this isn’t a problem for most people, and hey, if I owned a restaurant I’d use this “free space” to pack in a couple dozen more people, create a smoking area and make more money.

        However the flipside is that these seating areas can, if not done in a considerate way, inconvenience hundreds of people on a busy a day trying to pass without being whacked and wedged in by packages, bikes and other people.

        See how much width you require to walk straightforward, adding an extra six inches on either side. Four feet or so? Double that to have adequate space for single file passing. It means you need at least eight, nine feet without causing a crush.

        Pedestrians and the public come first- they paid for the sidewalks and they were created for this use. If the businesses can use unused space without inconveniencing the public, all the better, but it is a secondary use of this public space.

  • Anon

    DCRA regularly checks restaurants for patio size and the number of people on their patio, according to their permit. This city is broke and as long as the restaurant pays for the permit they’ll let them have space.

    • G

      last I heard DC has a $240 million budget surplus

      • Anonymous

        Yeah, the district isn’t currently hurting for cash.

  • rcoomber

    The ADA requires specific widths in public walkways for wheelchair access. I think the DC Office of Disability Rights enforces the public access provisions (http://odr.dc.gov/DC/ODR). But speaking to the manager might be the best first step. Less hassle for everyone.

    • I saw a Dateline or 20/20 story about a lawyer who went all over town finding ADA violations so he could sue the establishments. He had a tape measure and would report if something was even an inch off from the ADA requirement. It was his way of making money off of it, even though he himself was not disabled.

      • Annonny

        There you go, OP. Start suing the pants off every restaurant you find that is out of compliance. Since Americans with Disabilities Act violations are federal crimes, I think you can even take this stuff all the way to the Supreme Court!!!!

        Complain, sue, PROFIT! The American way!

  • Anonymous

    It’s not DC, but I think Bethesda is especially guilty of this. There, sometimes the sidewalk passes between the physical restaurant and the outdoor seating, so any peds are crossing paths with waiters and busboys. There is usually only room for a single file line of able-bodied adults.

    • Anonymous

      Sounds like Paris, Cologne, Luxembourg City…

      • D


  • Eli

    There was a post somewhere about a particularly egregious example of sidewalk blocking by the cafe on the Penn Ave. side of the Willard. There was really no way two people walking side by side could get around. The example here doesn’t look so bad. As for the tree box, I’ve seen worse obstacles on sidewalks without outdoor seating.

  • Anonymous

    Out of control? One or two instances does not make it out of control. This is how things get overregulated to death. Stop and enjoy life

  • jch

    Man, people will complain about anything these days.

  • LA

    Are you really inconvenienced by this set up near America Eats Tavern? I frequent this area quite often and have found no problem making my way around the outdoor tables. There’s barely any traffic on this street, so even if you had to step onto the street, it’s not like you’d get run over. I do understand that if it impedes a wheelchair that that is not right, but an able bodied citizen? Come on… I see this PoP post as a chance to vent about an issue that is not really an issue.

  • HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHhaha… breath…HAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHahhahahahahhaha….breath.When I moved downtown, there were virtually no places to eat outside. This post is freakin’ hilarious. I guess we don’t have bad problems to complain about anymore.

  • outdoor space is one the best things about living in a vibrant city, whether it be paris, nyc, or DC; why don’t you move to dallas TX or columbus ohio- theres no places there with outdoor seating there.

  • Outdoor seating requires a public space permit which is more involved than you realize. First an application is submitted, the ANC is allowed to weigh in on it, its reviewed in the office of public space at DDOT (or DPW) and then a hearing is held where the public is allowed to participate if you have concerns. Seats are not allowed to block wheel chairs and a minimum amount of sq feet per seat is required. DC does NOT tear up tree boxes or the sole purpose of adding outdoor seating (unless you are that crazy restaurant in Mnt Pleasant where you remove the tree in the middle of the night and hope that no one notices). Outdoor seating is one the great things about urban living in this city. It makes the whole pedestrian experience more interesting and safer.

  • KenyonDweller

    I love eating outside as much as anyone, but jeez, people, how about a little empathy for people in wheelchairs. If you have ever been in one, or known someone in one, or had to push one, you would know that this is a huge problem, not just a minor inconvenience. And, no, there is not enough room in that picture for a chair to pass.

    • Identified

      Empathy from PoPsters? Stop dreaming.

      If it is approved of by the posters, screw everyone else who doesn’t like it.
      If it is not approved by the posters, get the law to stop it!

      If a restaurant is violating it’s permit: it deserves to have its patio permanently closed. People should not have to remind restaurants to follow the law.

      I love outdoor patios… but they must fit in their permitted space and they must not “organically grow”.

      • classic_six

        Your point is fine regarding restaurants that are violating their outdoor seating permits, but the OP said they have the “feeling” that these outdoor spaces grow. A legal argument needs to be based in fact, not “feelings.”

        • Identified

          Absolutely agree.

          Which is why all outdoor patios should have to have their size/seating limits posted outdoors (not inside the restaurant).

          I worked at a bar downtown in the 90’s and I worked the patio of 10 – 8 top rounds. I had to constantly adjust the patio stanchions, as patrons would move them out to get more room. And after I moved them all back in to where they were supposed to be, my manager would come out and move them out to give more room to his customers.

          Staying within the law is key.

  • Tim

    I think it’s worth reminding that the OP is stating that it’s a “minor convenience” for them to navigate a crowded sidewalk with outdoor seating on foot. Navigating the sidewalk in a wheelchair is an entirely different experience.

  • Anonymous

    My only beef with outdoor seats is that I never seem to be able to leave work early enough to get one.

  • Anonymous

    I seriously don’t understand this lack of consideration for those in wheelchairs. It could so easily be you. It’s not like those in wheelchairs deserve it more than you.

  • Sympathy for people in wheelchairs??? In PoPville? You obviously didn’t get to read the comments to the ever-hilarious post from bartender Ben who got in a fight with wheelchair man at the Giant and challenged him to a jousting duel. HAHAHAHAHAHA! Dan, any way we can repost this fora good laugh???

  • classic_six

    The person sounds like a gem for wondering about this point. This is such a silly thing to be inconvenienced over. I’m sure it’s possible that a place or two violate the amount of space they are permitted on a DC sidewalk but one of the great joys of this city in nicer weather is the ability to sit outside, enjoy a drink or meal, people-watch. Considering the first hint of a warm, nice day, the sidewalk patios are packed with people, just enjoy that people are having a good time. Hasn’t the OP ever sat on the patio sidewalk doing the same thing. If you feel inconvenienced and so-called are concerned about how a person in a wheelchair might navigate this, why don’t you give a “free pass” and step aside for a couple of seconds to let person in wheelchair go by unobstructed by you and be happy that you made life a little bit easier for someone in just a couple of seconds.

  • rjs

    This has been gone over alot, but I want to point out one more thing. There ‘may’ be enough room for a wheelchair to get by in the photo (3 feet is the standard, I believe), but the chairs are pushed in right to the table. With any normal adult sitting there, let alone a ‘large’ person, there would be virtually no room at all between the tree box.

    That being said, I suppose that when a new tree is planted, one of those metal grates might go in around it, which can be rolled over, I think.

  • jae

    In some European cities–particularly Rome, which is one of the things that makes it such an incredible place to visit–the streets get closed at night to allow for outdoor seating at restaurants. People take public transportation and walk, or take a taxi to a nearby main avenue that’s left open to traffic. If you’re walking or in a wheelchair, there’s plenty of room because you’ve got the entire street.

    I’d love to see something like that in downtown DC.

    • djdc

      Little Italy in New York on weekends.

    • Anonymous

      It’s a good idea, but by the time rush over is finished it’s 8pm. I don’t think many restaurants would be willing to move their operations into the street for just an hour or two.

  • Anonymous

    The only issue with outdoor seating in DC is there is not enough of it.

  • SF
  • Wow… I’m kinda surprised by the backlash against the OP.

    Outdoor seating is a great thing… but as “Identified” wrote, bars and restaurants don’t always stay within their designated boundaries.

    Let’s continue having outdoor seating, but set up in such a way that people with wheelchairs can get by. And it sounds like DDOT/DPW/DCRA need to do a better job of enforcement to make sure that places are actually adhering to the terms of their outdoor-space permits.

  • rd

    can we discuss what an awful name “america eats tavern” is?

  • hawkddh

    wow… lots of folks talking here and no substance – at all. its a proven fact that outdoor seating greatly improves f&b sales, thus tax revenue, thus revenue for the city, thus revenue for whatever its purposed for – schools, wider sidewalks, new tree boxes (perhaps with trees)… in NY @ times square when they closed down a few blocks to vehicular traffic and created expanded outdoor seating areas, revenue for f&b establishments went up an average of 22%. its classic gehl urbanism at its best. dc should do more to employ these tactics to create a better sense of street space.

    • Anonymous

      the only problem with closing streets is the institutional memory of what a colossal failure it was the last time we tried it.

      but this is the new dc. it would work fine now.

  • anonymous

    The District maintain minimum requirements for clear sidewalk around a cafe. They must be 6 to 10′. Each cafe approval includes a site plan showing arrangement of seats and clear adjacent sidewalk. The clear adjacent sidewalk needs to in a straight line – not weaving around lamp posts and tree boxes. If someone thinks a sidewalk cafe is out of compliance with their permit or not up to the District’s minimum standards, they should call 311 and it will be forwarded to the correct enforcement agency. They will send out an inspector to verify the sidewalk is in compliance with their permit. If you want to better understand the District’s sidewalk cafe regulations, there are posted on the District’s website:



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