May 29, 2006

‘Paris on the Charles’

Well, um, not exactly. But three cheers to Cambridge still, for agreeing to allow restaurants to serve food and alcohol at outdoor sidewalk seating on public rights of way, according to a Boston Globe article Coming to Cambridge: Paris on the Charles. The decision is a triumph for enhanced quality of life in public spaces over the often knee-jerk hysteria in our society about alcohol consumption in public view.

The Cambridge rules use common sense to balance creation of neighborhood-enhancing sidewalk cafes with legitimate concerns about public noise and rowdiness, especially in a community swarming with college students. "Alcohol" is not a problem when consumed responsibly; in limited quantities with meals, alcohol is actually healthy. Abuse and overconsumption of alcohol is a problem.

"If it's summertime, you want to sit outside," Elizabeth Lint, executive officer of the Cambridge License Commission, told the Globe. "You're paying for a lovely meal, and you want to have a glass of wine or whatever you choose to accompany it. They do it all over Boston and the South End, then why not here?"

It's a question worth asking about the revitalization of downtown Framingham as well.

"The change dovetails with a $3.5 million renovation project to improve roads and sidewalks and jumpstart the street life in [Harvard] square, which draws 8 million visitors a year. Winthrop and Palmer streets, for instance, will be transformed into pedestrian malls," the Globe notes.

Street life, foot traffic and pedestrian appeal are critical components for a successful 21st century downtown business district. "Sense of place" is the most potent weapon places like Harvard Square have in their competition with big-box retailers and suburban malls. It's something Framingham would be wise to consider trying to cultivate, as Waltham's Moody Street has done even without sidewalk seating (they, however, are fortunate enough to have the Charles River as a draw).

Cambridge restaurants pay a $750 fee to use the public sidwalk for a season of outdoor dining, and may not exceed the total seats allowed by their liquor licenses. "Waiters can serve alcohol only along with food, must stop by 11 p.m., and cannot allow smoking on the patios. The commission is requiring designs that include cordoned-off areas and planters and not 'rinky-dink furniture,' Lint said," according to the Globe. " 'The mayor thinks it should be like Paris,' she said. 'We want a cosmopolitan kind of feel. '"

Such seemingly small touches will also help burnish the allure of the streetscape, attracting visitors who will likely spend more time strolling and ultimately spend more money with local businesses.

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