Watertown group promoting downtown outdoor cafes

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WATERTOWN — A group of business and community leaders wants to get the word out about how downtown restaurants can offer outdoor seating along city sidewalks.

Dr. Jason White, chairman of the Advantage Watertown committee, said there’s a misconception about the city’s policy on sidewalk cafes. Someone recently told him that the policy is too strict. Someone else told him all that’s required is to put out some chairs on the sidewalk.

“It’s probably somewhere in the middle,” Dr. White told members of Advantage Watertown last week.

In recent months, the group has been talking about what can be done to get more outdoor cafes.

Dr. White hopes to arrange for a meeting with downtown business owners to let them know more.

He mentioned that outdoor eateries in Montreal — called Parisian sidewalk cafes — are elaborate. They have barriers that separate pedestrians from seated patrons and even extend out to nearby parking lots.

The discussion also focused on the need for signage, safety and knowing about state liquor laws.

Advantage Watertown member Brian H. Murray, a local developer with several downtown properties, said a restaurant could benefit from opening one in the downtown business district. He also said it could encourage other development.

Dr. White said the subject is already spurring discussion.

“I got a lot of real positive feedback,” he said.

Restaurants in many cities, including Saratoga Springs, do a brisk business with sidewalk cafes.

In recent years, Vito’s Gourmet, a deli and coffee shop, has set up outdoor seating during warmer weather. In the past, Bistro 108 and the now-closed Subway sandwich shop also offered seating outdoors.

In a recent memo to the City Council, planner Michael A. Lumbis wrote that the city has no formal code or written policy that covers sidewalk cafes or specific requirements for having them. Under current procedure, a request is made to City Manager Sharon A. Addison, who asks other city staff members for their input on the request. If it gets the nod, the applicant is given a license agreement for the cafe.

Advantage Watertown members hope that some guidelines can be put into place.

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