Greater Greater Washington posted a fascinating item yesterday about Sette Osteria‘s desire to enclose its sidewalk patio near the corner of 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue NW. Blogger David Alpert uses the proposal as an opportunity to analyze how private businesses use public space, sometimes to the detriment of the people, who have to sacrifice aesthetics and sidewalk access for the benefit of a few restaurateurs.

Writes Alpert:

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.

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.

Not to sound too knee-jerk here, but I don’t think private business should ever be allowed to enclose a public space for personal use. I love sidewalk cafes and would like to see more of them in D.C., but an enclosed space is not a sidewalk cafe. It’s often an eyesore just one step up from a glorified tent.