Stamford’s outdoor cafes stir up strife over sidewalk space

March 24, 2018 GMT

STAMFORD — Never mind the recent snow and the ongoing chill — it’s cafe season.

It began March 15 and lasts until Nov. 30. It’s the time each year when the city allows restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks for outdoor dining.

It’s good for restaurant-goers, who enjoy eating alfresco.

It’s good for restaurant owners, who like the extra tables and the customers they attract.

It’s good for the city, which collects $250 for each permit and $2 for each square foot of sidewalk that becomes an outdoor cafe.

It’s a win-win-win.

Except there’s one loser.



They have trouble making their way along sidewalks when restaurant owners violate the outdoor-dining ordinance — which requires “a clear and unobstructed path” at least 4 feet wide. Paths sometimes are blocked with tables, chairs, A-frame menu signs, space heaters, planters and other objects.

It’s a particular problem for people in wheelchairs or those who rely on walkers, canes and guide dogs.

That’s why the outdoor-dining ordinance ended up on the agenda of the Board of Representatives’ Legislative & Rules Committee last week. City Rep. John Zelinsky, D-11, wanted legislators to discuss whether the law should be amended to enhance compliance.

“Maybe there should be bigger fines,” Zelinsky said.

But city Rep. Benjamin Lee, D-15, the committee chairman, said the penalties are sufficient. The ordinance says that any restaurant cited by the zoning enforcement officer has five days to correct a violation or face a $90 fine. If a restaurant is cited a second time during the same café season, its outdoor-dining permit could be revoked for a week. The permit may be revoked for 30 days for a third violation.

“It’s not really the ordinance,” Lee said. “It’s a question of enforcement.”

Two sides

Zoning Enforcement Officer James Lunney told the committee he receives 10 to 20 complaints a season, and he resolves them by visiting restaurants and asking owners to comply. Lunney said he does not recall an instance when a citation was issued.

“I have seen violations,” he said. “I’m not saying there are no problems … but I don’t think (restaurants) are blatantly disregarding the ordinance.”

But Lunney acknowledged that his staff of three, including himself, is far too small to conduct all the inspections needed in a “booming” city.

At that point, Phillip Magalnick, a downtown resident who is blind and navigates sidewalks with a guide dog, got up and left the meeting.


“I was so frustrated,” Magalnick, president of the southwestern Connecticut chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, said afterward. He is a member of the Stamford Mayor’s Committee on Access for All, which has been trying to increase compliance with the outdoor-dining ordinance since the first café season in 2016, Magalnick said.

“The zoning enforcement officer said ‘we don’t have the people to do it, but we’re doing it.’ It can’t be both,” he said. “The zoning enforcement officer said the problems are minor, but on the Access for All Committee, it’s the No. 1 topic.”

No teeth

During the height of café season, “you’ll see a bunch of violations every day,” Magalnick said. “Someone who is able-bodied probably thinks a chair in the middle of a sidewalk is an inconvenience. To someone with a disability — or even a senior citizen or someone pushing a baby stroller — it’s a hazard. It sends a message that we’re not welcome downtown.”

Frank Mercede, chairman of the Access for All Committee, said it was difficult to attend the Legislative & Rules meeting because it was not a public hearing and they were not allowed to speak.

“The biggest problem that was not brought out is that when Lunney said he would go to a restaurant and they would fix it, an hour later they put the tables back again,” Mercede said. “There is a small group of repeat offenders that keep getting away with it. Nobody ever got their hand slapped. If somebody did, word would get out and it would deter the others.”

Mercede, whose daughter is in a wheelchair, said he thinks about half the restaurants with outdoor-dining permits comply with the rules.

Sandra Goldstein, president of the Downtown Special Services District, said she thinks 98 percent of restaurants comply.

“There are a few … who are serial non-compliers who push the envelope. We have, on a number of occasions, asked the zoning enforcement officer to deal with that,” Goldstein said. “People who are challenged have the right to navigate the downtown streets. The outdoor-dining parameters are set with those people in mind, as they should be.”

Table police

The downtown is patrolled by DSSD goodwill ambassadors who Goldstein said look for tables and chairs encroaching on sidewalks and notify restaurant owners.

“Everybody can make a mistake once or twice, but I don’t have much sympathy for serial offenders,” Goldstein said.

Magalnick said he has complained for two years, to little avail.

“Nothing is done. There is no follow-up. There are few, if any, citations,” he said. “I think there is too much money to lose for these restaurants, and the city is not going to shut down their outdoor cafes.”

He has hope, however, when he learned what happened after he left the Legislative & Rules meeting. A member of that committee, city Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, D-12, heads the Board of Representatives’ Operations Committee, which can tackle matters of enforcement.

Jacobson said his committee will take up outdoor dining.

“I think things can happen if we are allowed to get our side of this out,” Magalnick said.

Mercede said he is encouraged.

“Let’s get in front of the right committee and share our points,” he said.