Unlike some people, I will never confuse Oshkosh with Paris. That is why I am not a big fan of the proposed changes to the sidewalk cafe ordinance that will be taken up by the Oshkosh Common Council tonight. Supporters of the cafe idea--and the relaxed restrictions on them--are trying to sell them as these bucolic little oases of European culture in the hustle and bustle (okay, occassional loud pickup truck) of downtown Oshkosh.
First off, let's start by calling these "cafes" what they really are: smoking areas. That is why one of the changes proposed for tonight is to allow the bar and restaurant owners to decide if they will allow smoking at the sidewalk tables. The bars along North Main Street are pinched for space--so they can't build the outdoor "smoking decks" that many taverns with some elbow room have built to get around the state's workplace smoking ban. Throw some tables on the sidewalk--call it a cafe--and you have the next best thing.
The biggest problem that I have is the proposal to remove the fenced-in requirement for these smoking areas. Since the majority of businesses that will be putting up these smoking areas are taverns not exactly known for their food--the majority of sales at the sidewalk tables will be alcohol. Having a fence around the tables will prevent those beer bottles, cups and highball glasses from "taking a walk" up and down North Main. If memory serves me correctly, State Street in Madison--apparently the inspiration for this idea--has the sidewalk tables fenced in and it doesn't seem to harm the flow of pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks.
Finally, I'd like to know what the city's plan is for when the seagulls and other birds see that there is another food source available to them downtown. Hopefully, it will be more than just signs telling patrons "Please Don't Feed the Birds". We all know how effective those are in our parks. It's amazing how quickly seagulls figure out where they can get a quick meal--whether it is given to them by diners or just laying around on the ground. Perhaps the Otter Street Fishing Club can donate the miles of fishing line that will need to be strung up over the sidewalks to ward off the birds' dive bombing attempts.
Unless State Street Brats is opening an Oshkosh location on North Main, I likely won't be sitting along the street to eat or drink anytime soon. But if we are going to have them, let's try to make them as safe and as classy as possible.