Clear the sidewalks!

Posted: April 30, 2013

IT'S SPRING, AND along with the crocuses, something else is in bloom.

Up and down the avenues and boulevards, after a winter of hibernation, sidewalk cafes have returned.

They add color and life to city streets, all good.

But a handful of arrogant businesses think they own the sidewalk, treat it as their personal for-profit turf.

Such as Pizzicato, at the corner of 3rd and Market, a chronic offender that upped the ante last week by adding wood planters, actually creating a blockade of the Market Street sidewalk. That's what I was told by two people who work in the neighborhood, within hours of each other.

Mary Dunham, 44, works for a company across the street. When she advised cafe staffers that they were creating a hazard and breaking the law, she was met with "complete disdain. They don't care," she says.

Civil engineer Bryan Van Lenten, 37, works on Pizzicato's block. He checked the Philadelphia City Code and advised the manager that the blockade was illegal. He was told that Pizzicato thought the new planters "look nice."

Both Dunham and Van Lenten reported the violation to 3-1-1, and to me. I go after unscrupulous businesses that improve their bottom lines by impeding your freedom of movement.

I called Pizzicato on Friday and was told that no manager was available, nor was the owner. I contacted the Streets Department, which is charged with enforcing the sidewalk rules.

On Wednesday, before I spoke with Streets Commissioner David Perri, an inspector told Pizzicato that it was in violation, wrote a ticket and ordered the sidewalk cleared.

In the event of back talk from this chronic violator, a Sanitation Department trash compactor was parked at the curb. The message: The compactor will eat your tables, chairs and planters if they are not cleared from the pedestrian right-of-way. (I love subtlety.)

The blockade came down. (Congratulations to Pizzicato for snagging the first ticket of the year.)

Perri has been streets commissioner for just one week. I've been dealing with him for more than a year, when he was the deputy. He's adamant about two things: Sidewalk cafes are a plus in terms of ambience, activity and "eyes on the street," but they have to play by well-defined rules.

The rules say that sidewalks with a width of 13 feet or less require "5 feet of clear sidewalk space." That means no obstructions such as parking meters, trees, poles, fire hydrants, etc. On sidewalks wider than 13 feet, "at least one-half" of the sidewalk must be clear for pedestrians.

Until last year, inspectors made two sweeps of sidewalk cafes a season, between April and September, and compliance was spotty. Violators were happy to pay the $75 fine twice a season for all the extra customers they could serve at illegal tables. "Pizzicato would make $75 back from the tourist trade in two hours," estimates engineer Van Lenten.

This year, "I'm thinking we need to do this once a month" between April and September, Perri tells me, in addition to responding to 3-1-1 complaints. That's where you, the citizen, come in. Use it.

A $75 fine is not really a deterrent, Perri concedes. That's why he's hammered out an agreement with Licenses and Inspections for a procedure to put teeth into enforcement - sharp teeth.

If a $75 fine doesn't reel in the offender, that will be followed by an administrative hearing, followed by suspension of the cafe license, then a cease-operations order, and finally revocation of license to operate a restaurant.

Last year, a paltry 36 tickets were written, preceded by warnings, but 20 have been written already in 2013.

"This year we're doing it differently," Perri says. "If you're out of compliance, you're getting a ticket."

Music to pedestrians' ears.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Columns: philly.com/Byko

Blog: philly.com/stuniversity

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