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Council Paves Way for Sidewalk Displays

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 12 -- In a move to boost business and enliven the city's main neighborhood commercial strips, the City Council Tuesday night voted 4 to 2 to approve an ordinance that effectively lifts a ban on sidewalk displays.

The interim ordinance -- which is expected to help small businesses on Main Street and on Montana Avenue survive the current economic crunch -- allows merchants to place furniture, portable landscaping and cigarette disposal receptacles within the public right-of-way. It also allows them to display their goods in private vestibules.

Under the ordinance, which must be revisited in 60 days, bars and restaurants can provide outdoor seating as long as it is used by customers for dining or drinking. To ensure public safety, merchants must obtain appropriate permits or licenses and maintain clear sidewalk areas.

"This is good for pedestrians, it's good for small businesses, and it's good for the community," Councilman Michael Feinsten, who co-sponsored the measure, said after the meeting.

After an hour-long debate, the council voted to allow vestibule areas in the two popular shopping districts and permitted displays that are 60 inches tall and 36 inches wide and deep.

Planning staff warned that it would be difficult to enforce the limits. "Right now, it's easy. It's all illegal," said Planning Director Suzanne Frick. "If our inspectors have to start measuring, (enforcing the ordinance) is likely not to occur on a consistent basis."

Frick added that her department currently gets a "substantial number of complaints" about merchandise and sidewalk signs blocking the right of way.

After hearing from shopkeepers who testified that placing merchandise outside their stores helps sell goods and lures customers inside, the council majority argued that the ordinance would boost business and enliven the commercial strips.

But some council members worried the ordinance would pave the way for unattractive displays and that the sidewalks and vestibules could be used for warehousing goods.

"A big general merchandise store had stacks and stacks of resin furniture out front," said Councilman Ken Genser, who along with Mayor Richard Bloom opposed the ordinance. "What they were using the vestibule for was warehousing. Another one had stacks and stacks of Pepsi-Cola products out front."

The council also directed staff to review whether display areas could be expanded to arcade spaces and how that could be done.

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