Sette wants an enclosed sidewalk cafe. Where do we draw the line?
In November, Sette Osteria, the pizza restaurant at Connecticut and R in Dupont Circle, proposed putting a retractable awning over their outdoor seating. The awning would enable service in a wider range of weather. The restaurant's manager initially told the community that they planned only to request the awning, not a complete enclosure. However, only a few months after receiving approval for the awning, they have requested permission to install removable panels that would completely enclose the space during the winter.
How far should we allow restaurants to go along the continuum of enclosing their space? Sidewalk cafes are a distinctive part of DC's streetscape. They fill in some of the wide public space, bringing activity up to the sidewalk. At the same time, open-air sidewalk seating leaves open space above, keeping a wide visual view along the street. It allows pedestrians to see and hear diners as they walk by, and the diners become eyes on the street.
In DC, this space is all public, rather than private, property. Owners of the adjacent property can request permission to build a sidewalk cafe and even enclose it, but don't actually own the space.
Sidewalk cafes make a positive impact, and we should encourage them. But what happens when restaurants want to add more than a fence and some seating? Are awnings okay? What about plastic sheeting that restaurants only install during the rain or cold? What about a permanent structure? Some cafes have completely enclosed some or all of their public space with wood, glass, or metal structures. In Dupont Circle, prominent examples include Annie's on 17th Street or Afterwords and Raku on 19th and Q.
Left: Annie's on 17th Street. Right: Raku on Q Street.
Images from Google Street View. Click for interactive version.
Annie's dramatically breaks up the flow of buildings on 17th. The sidewalk on either side extends all the way back to the building line, creating wide, empty spaces. Meanwhile, Annie's sticks far out, forcing pedestrians into a narrow space between the wall and the tree box. Its solid walls prevent passerby from seeing the diners and vice versa.
On the other hand, Afterwords and Raku don't intrude as negatively onto the public space, at least to me. Both enclose part of their public space with permanent structures, but only part. Both place outdoor seating between the enclosed part and the sidewalk. That creates a transition zone. Pedestrians encounter the outdoor seating, filled in good weather and empty in bad, rather than walking right along a solid wall.
To support Sette's awning, the restaurant would install vertical supports along the building front and along the sidewalk. During nice weather or when the restaurant wasn't using the sidewalk cafe, the supports would remain, but the top and sides would be open to the air. Their first proposal involved a large number of these (seven, I believe), each fairly thick. Together, they would have blocked the view along R Street.
The Dupont Circle Conservancy and Dupont ANC both spoke against this plan. In response, he restaurant revised their plans to use fewer supports. Despite some misgivings, DCC and the Historic Preservation Office approved this revised design, but without the signs on the railing (which violate public space regulations):
This month, the restaurant returned to the Conservancy to request a complete enclosure. They would use removable panels to convert between an open air configuration in summer and a fully enclosed one in winter. Sette's representatives argued that they need the added seating to remain profitable. However, many residents, myself included, felt like victims of a bait-and-switch. If they have so many customers that they fill the (fairly large) interior space and need even more, will having the enclosure really make or break the business?
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