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   March 27, 2008 Issue                                       

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Sidewalk signs, seating reviewed

Businesses along Germantown Avenue should think twice before setting out sidewalk signs, merchandise or tables and chairs, since most of them are illegal under city regulations.

The legality of sidewalk cafés, A-frame signage and sidewalk sale items along Chestnut Hill’s stretch of Germantown Avenue was discussed at the March 18 meeting of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development and Review Committee.

Deborah Schaaf, a senior planner with the city’s Planning Commission, attended the meeting to educate the committee members on the city’s regulations.

According to an ordinance Schaaf brought with her to the meeting, sidewalk cafés are allowed only with approval from the city — shop owners have to obtain both a special ordinance from city council and a license from the Streets Department.

Most of the sidewalk cafés in the city are not licensed, she said. Last year, when the city was boasting about its 200-plus sidewalk cafés in the downtown area, she asked the Streets Department how many, citywide, were licensed. She learned that only 82 in the entire city were.

Besides the necessary “red tape” that most sidewalk café owners do not go through, there are frequent violations of varying restrictions associated with the cafés.

Basically, shop owners must leave half of their sidewalk clear, Schaaf said at the meeting. So if a sidewalk is 16 feet wide, the café can take up eight feet, but only if the remaining eight feet does not have any obstructions, such as trees, parking meters, etc. If the sidewalk is less than 13 feet wide, she said, there must be a clear path five-feet wide.

“To me, that’s inadequate,” Schaaf said at the meeting, also pointing out that the space was difficult to enforce. “It’s very difficult, because people are going to move their chairs.”

She said the Streets Department makes a sweep through the city twice a year and investigates when complaints are made, but regular enforcement of sidewalk free space is not a priority for the city.

Greg Woodring, DRC chair, said he was concerned that, with limited passing space, pedestrians were not only inconvenienced, but could slip off the curb and hurt themselves.

As for signs, the committee was not able to discuss the legality of A-frame signs, although Schaaf told the Local in an e-mail that the Planning and Art commissions consider A-frames prohibited because of a statement in the code that reads, “No sign shall be erected or maintained beyond the building line over, on, or in any of the streets of the City except in conformity with the provisions of this Section. Any sign which does not so conform is hereby declared a public nuisance.”

Joanne Dhody, of the CHCA’s Aesthetics Committee said she was concerned about the lack of oversight regarding these signs.

Sidewalk sale items brought a similar reaction from Dhody, who said that, aesthetically, the signs and clothes racks made the Hill look sloppy.

“They look junky,” Dhody said, questioning the need for the number of signs on the avenue. “There’s just too much junk. We don’t want a South Street. We should look at who needs it, so we don’t have every store putting a sign out.”

Others on the committee disagreed, arguing that signs and merchandise outside brought people into the stores, helped business owners and added to the Hill’s welcoming community.

“Many of Chestnut Hill’s historic fronts are not as appealing commercially,” said DRC chair Larry McEwen, pointing out that the large, storefront windows are not always included in Germantown Avenue commercial shops. “I think, personally, it adds to the neighborhood. I’m much more enthused by the market bazaar-like atmosphere than concerned about lettering on a sign.”

The discussion ended when Joyce Lenhardt pointed out that no matter what the committee thought looked good or was beneficial to merchants and the community, if the signs and sales were illegal by city law, then they were not permitted.

“There are so many things that I think are unattractive but are legal,” Woodring chimed in.

The committee decided that if unattractive signs were discovered to be legal, it would let Main Street Manager Fran O’Donnell approach the respective stores to request they find more aesthetically pleasing solutions.

Also discussed at the meeting was a sidewalk bump-out proposed for the intersection of Bethlehem Pike and Germantown Avenue.

A $50,000 grant from the city’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, obtained with the help  of Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, was given to the Business Improvement District for this project.

The money would implement a suggestion made by the Cope Linder Architects streetscape study, completed in September 2005, which initially suggested that an island be placed at the intersection to allow safer pedestrian crossing.

Currently, the crosswalk from the Sovereign Bank corner to the Borders Book Store corner is long, and drivers often take the turn from Germantown Avenue onto Bethlehem Pike quickly, leading to a dangerous crossing for pedestrians.

“You pretty much take your life in your hands when you cross there,” said Bonnie Greenberg, president of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District.

The city Streets Department has since vetoed the pedestrian island, saying there was no room, but was supportive of the bump out, which would shorten the crosswalk and make Bethlehem Pike’s connection with Germantown Avenue more of a turn than a fork in the road.

At the DRC meeting, some members were concerned that the change could create an obstacle to emergency vehicles turning at the intersection. Bob Previdi, former executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business Association and who applied for this NTI grant, said that concern is unnecessary.

“No engineer in the City of Philadelphia will sign off on any change that will not be safe for emergency vehicles,” he said, adding that the designs, when completed, will have to go through preliminary approval by the city, then through the community process, and be presented again for final city approval.

The bump out is not yet designed, Greenberg said, adding that the BID was planning to go to the CHCA with its plans once an official design was drawn. Previdi said a structural engineer has been chosen to complete the design, and work on the design should start in about two weeks and end in six to eight weeks — around the end of May or beginning of June.

Contact staff writer Kristin Pazulski at 215-248-8819 or