For the last year, Z Burger has been negotiating with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A about how it ought to be able to use the public space in front of the old Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights. There are lots of particulars to the situation, but the sticking point is over whether Z Burger should be able to erect a fence around its seating area.
Peter Taibibian, head of the rapidly-expanding Z Burger empire, says he wants the fence to prevent drunks, panhandlers, and dogs from bothering his customers. Plus, he says, look around: Everybody else has a fence around their seating area. “I don’t know why they’re trying to use me as an example,” he says, impatiently.
But there’s a difference between Alero or Acre 121 and Z Burger’s location: It’s right on the Columbia Heights plaza, which a 2004 framework plan envisioned as a cohesive public realm. Enclosing part of that would privatize what’s supposed to belong to the neighborhood, says Laina Aquiline, the ANC commissioner for that area.
“The whole intention is for the Columbia Heights public realm to be an open public space, what people have referred to as a park from the very beginning,” Aquiline says. “Z Burger wants to come and take advantage of it, as any smart business would. They want to come in and destroy it to take advantage of that.” The Commission will consider a resolution in opposition to the fence at its May 9 meeting, and the District Department of Transportation’s Public Space Committee makes the final decision.
You could dismiss this as yet another example of a meddling micro-politician—-outside commentators have complained that the ANC’s insistence on this point is strangling a business’ efforts to serve the community. That’s bullshit. The Columbia Heights plaza is an absolute gem of a public space, and alterations should be taken very seriously.
Of course, there should be seating there—-it’s been barren and empty for too long—-and Taibibian is reasonable in not wanting to provide tables and chairs for everyone. Ideally, Columbia Heights would have a Business Improvement District that could pool private resources to furnish and maintain public furniture, but it doesn’t. In the mean time, many of Z Burger’s customers will use all parts of the plaza; the company has no right to exclusive use of any of it.
Curious about the rest of the city’s sidewalk cafes—-there are probably more than ever this year, having celebrated their 50th anniversary—-I took a tour to see how they’re used. There are basically four types: Permanent, enclosed patios built as an extension of the restaurant, fixed fences around seating areas that are difficult to remove, more symbolic lines of demarcation created by planters or light cordons, and tables that aren’t enclosed at all.
Barriers make sense when you’re trying to keep the party inside the bar—-tipsy revelers shouldn’t necessarily spill onto the sidewalk—-and when you’re trying to create some semblance of privacy for a higher-end dining experience. None of those circumstances apply to Z Burger (its own Southwest location doesn’t have a fence). And in fact, not having a fence around tables and chairs creates a more intimate public space; diners cluster closer together, and passersby feel more like they’re walking through someone’s living room. That’s something worth preserving.
Here’s a slideshow of the different types of patios and sidewalk cafes we’ve got.