In response to complaints in recent months about downtown sidewalks becoming more and more crowded with outdoor seating and sandwich-board signs, the city has launched a concerted effort to get more businesses to comply with what is and isn't allowed on city sidewalks.
The city, in conjunction with the Downtown Business and Professional Association, held a series of meetings starting last fall with a group of downtown businesses, primarily University Avenue restaurants, about which people had complained or which had been identified as not having the proper permits in place for outdoor tables and chairs.
"We're working on trying to give them a path to simple compliance prior to having to enforce the stick side of it," city Economic Development Manager Thomas Fehrenbach said.
In order to place tables and chairs in the public right of way, businesses must apply for an encroachment permit from the city. The permit includes several stipulations: The tables and chairs must be approved; they must be set 8 feet back from the curb, and the space under the tables and chairs must be routinely cleaned so as to not create a "public mess," Fehrenbach said.
A long-term (more than five days) non-residential encroachment permit costs $920.
Palo Alto's sign code "typically" does not allow for freestanding A-frames and sandwich-board signs placed in the public's right of way on sidewalks, Fehrenbach said. Businesses whose property lines extend in front of their buildings are of course permitted to do so.
Representatives from about 15 downtown restaurants with ample sidewalk seating Joya, La Strada, Gyros Gyros, Umami Burger, John's CafĂ© and others attended the meetings. They were told that if they didn't comply within 45 days, they would be fined.
Fehrenbach said many of the restaurants had simply been unaware of such requirements before the meetings. Their compliance levels had run the gamut, from lack of proper permitting to tables and chairs placed adjacent to the curb instead of the business' building.
Mistie Cohen, a partner with Oren's Hummus Shop at 261 University Ave., was one of those restaurateurs. Oren's used to have six outdoor tables, some of them two-seaters and others, four. Cohen said there was enough room to seat 20 people.
Since the meetings, Oren's has cut its number of sidewalk tables down to two and moved them far enough back from the curb, directly up against the restaurant's front window. Cohen said they also hired a company to steam clean underneath the tables once a week to uphold the cleanliness level required by the city. (The city also steam cleans sidewalks once a month.)
Oren's has also stopped serving alcohol at its sidewalk tables as the city expressed it would start to enforce rules against those businesses that didn't have the required outdoor liquor license (a separate application and cost from an indoor license).
As a "newer restaurant on the block," Cohen said the Oren's team initially saw other downtown restaurants with similar outdoor seating options and assumed they could do the same.
"We just followed what the standard was showing throughout the city," she said.
Russ Cohen, executive director of the Downtown Business and Professional Association, said this standard was supported by a previous lack of enforcement.
"If there isn't any enforcement, then there's a tendency to become complacent," he said. "If you don't know the rules, then there are no rules to follow."
However, he said, "The rules are not arbitrary."
"They're there for a reason, or many reasons, and I think restaurants and retailers now have a better understanding of why the rules are in place."
Though Mistie Cohen said the city's meetings were "great," she also characterized compliance as costly. The once-a-week steam cleaning is an additional cost, as is the loss of room for 20 outdoor diners.
"It's difficult as a business owner every table, every seat is a dollar for your restaurant," she said.
Fehrenbach said the city is continuing to work on getting all downtown businesses up to code and plans to expand the outreach and possible code-enforcement sweeps to Palo Alto's other business districts, including California Avenue.
"This is ultimately about making (downtown) a really pedestrian-friendly environment with not a lot of clutter and also making it fair for everyone," he said.