Sidewalk dining coming to Chico
Council approves expanded café-seating ordinance
Tuesday night (July 6), Deborah Schowalter needed just three minutes to turn the Chico City Council around on an issue.
Council members had been discussing a proposed ordinance that would have allowed some restaurant owners, but not others, to obtain licenses to widen the sidewalk in front of their businesses by filling in up to two parking spaces. They could then install sidewalk café seating and serve alcoholic beverages as well as food.
The idea, said Tom Varga, the city’s Capital Projects Services director, was to begin a two-phased implementation of sidewalk dining by starting with a program limited to corner restaurants and no more than one per square block. Though applicable to the entire city, the ordinance was intended primarily for downtown. In the second phase, the program would be expanded in coordination with the downtown element of the updated general plan.
Currently, two businesses now in the midst of remodeling—Tres Hombres, at First and Broadway, and the new Burgers and Brew, in the old bank building at Second and Broadway—have expressed interest in café seating. Both presumably would have qualified under the proposed ordinance.
Councilmen Tom Nickell and Andy Holcombe were concerned about possible unfairness, but neither was able to get much traction. Varga kept saying staff thought it was better to start small, with an incremental approach. The city has been struggling for years to create a big plan for downtown, he said, but the issues have been too complex and contentious to bear fruit.
Flynn, agreeing, called it “paralysis by analysis.” The immediate proposal was “a positive move forward,” she said, a “response to opportunity projects,” meaning Tres Hombres and Burgers and Brew. “We’re creating models here,” she said.
Alone among the council members, Holcombe thought the city should wait until the general plan was updated before acting. “This isn’t the ‘Tres Hombres and Burgers and Beer [sic] Opportunity Ordinance,’ ” he quipped.
Councilman Scott Gruendl noted that, according to the proposal, if Tres Hombres put in sidewalk dining, Celestino’s on the next corner over couldn’t do so. Varga agreed, saying Celestino’s would have to wait until Phase Two was implemented.
Councilman Jim Walker said he thought the ordinance was imperfect—his preference was for two licenses per block not limited to corners—but that he didn’t want that to stop it from moving forward.
That’s when Schowalter stepped up to the podium. The ordinance is unconstitutional, she said bluntly. It discriminates against some business owners in favor of others. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. “I would scrap Phase One and go directly to Phase Two,” she said.
The council members said nothing, but it was clear they’d heard her. After the meeting, Gruendl agreed that she’d turned the discussion around.
Caffé Malvina co-owner Denise Bell-Corona, whose restaurant sits mid-block and would have been ineligible for a license, said café seating was a great idea but should be expanded. And Michael Thomas, who owns Tres Hombres, stressed the importance of including filters that assured that only sit-down dining was allowed.
In the end the council—minus Councilman Larry Wahl and Mayor Ann Schwab, who recused themselves because they own businesses downtown—voted 5-0 to approve a rewritten resolution that will allow anyone who can afford to do so to put in café seating, regardless of location. They will have to pay for the improvements themselves, as well as a license fee of $600 per year.
In other council news, the panel gave final approval to the 2010-11 budget it first approved on June 15, with a few changes and additions. The most controversial of these was the inclusion of $100,000 for the design of a new animal shelter at the current site of the Butte Humane Society facility.
BHS Executive Director Christine Fixico told council members that, as the 2009-10 Butte County Grand Jury has just confirmed, the current site is too small to hold a shelter large enough to meet the need. She and the BHS board would prefer the money be used to repair the current facility while waiting for funding to become available for a new site.
“Spending $100,000 toward design when there are so many problems at the facility is incomprehensible,” she said.
But Assistant Manager John Rucker, the city’s point man on the shelter issue, said he and staff were convinced that, by reorienting buildings on the site and making the main structure two stories high, it could work.
Ultimately the council agreed with Rucker, citing the need to move ahead on building a decent facility. The vote was 6-1, with Wahl, who agreed with Fixico, dissenting.
Finally, the council unanimously voted to approve one of the largest capital projects to come down the pike in some time, the $16.7 million widening of Highway 32 from the Highway 99 freeway eastward to Yosemite Avenue.
The project, which will be done in phases, will be funded mostly by development-impact fees, but the city also is likely to get some state and federal funding, Bob Greenlaw, a senior civil engineer at the city, told the council.
Highway 32 will become six lanes from 99 to Fir Street, then four lanes to Yosemite. It will include a planted median, 8- or 10-foot-tall concrete sound barriers on both sides, and a “timber barrier alternative” that involves planting large trees in the median. The goal, Greenlaw said, is to create a “green” entry into Chico from the east.
Intersections—especially at Forest Avenue—will be improved, and bike lanes will be added.
Nobody spoke against the project, and council members approved it unanimously.