Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

A look at sidewalk cafes in downtown D.C., by the numbers

April 27, 2012 - 01:52 PM
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(Photo: Downtown BID)

Who doesn't love a good sidewalk cafe? These spots have risen significantly in recent years and mark the sort of pedestrian life that smart-growth transportation planners adore. What they promote is circulation, a casual public life outside of our doors. Strolling is good for business, not to mention health, community, and public safety. The city recognizes these virtues in its streetscaping, tree, and pedestrian safety efforts.

Let's examine how sidewalk cafes have changed downtown from 2010 to 2011. The chart above shows that the smaller ones, capable of seating anywhere from 1 to 30 seats, all grew in number. The bigger categories of sidewalk cafe, which seat in the 31-50+ range, held steady in number or slightly shrank, which is no surprise considering the price of retail downtown. That much sidewalk space, I'm sure, costs these cafes some serious cash. The Downtown Business Improvement District released its annual report for 2011 this spring, which includes the numbers on sidewalk cafes, and discussed its findings this past Tuesday at the Newseum. "Enhancing the physical environment and the pedestrian experience contributes greatly to the quality of life in Downtown," the report notes on the page of this chart. Any business who wants to set up the outdoor seating has to pay the District Department of Transportation $260 for a permit and receive approval. The Downtown BID's territory played host to 136 sidewalk cafes overall in 2011, up from 123 in 2010.

What's most remarkable is that D.C.'s first sidewalk cafe only opened half a century earlier. The Post recalled the opening last fall and described the fear these sidewalk cafes provoked back in 1961. A sample concern? "Pedestrians might brush against patrons, resulting in a punch in the nose." The horror! Now the city is estimated to have more than 450 of the fine establishments, prime for a warm spring day.

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