Tables and chairs outside Peet's on Solano Avenue

By Jane Tierney

After three years of planning, Peet’s on Solano has put chairs and tables outside its store on Solano Avenue, helping to create a European-style ambiance for the block.

It took the company that long because of Berkeley’s labyrinth permit process – and the fact not everyone agrees that outside seating is a good thing.

While many people enjoy sidewalk cafes, lingering over espresso, having a leisurely meal and watching the passers-by, others are irritated by the tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk. A trip to the post office or grocer can mean negotiating sprawling dogs and people.

“It reminds me of home,” said a recent transplant from Berlin, accustomed to the pervasive sidewalk cafes that abound in every European city.

“I enjoy going to Peet’s but I have concerns about the increase in trash, the absence of recycling containers, and the safety of dogs tied up in the walkways,” said Claire Magowan, who lives near Solano Avenue.

Berkeley has strict zoning laws about sidewalk obstructions and it took three years to negotiate a system to allow the tables, according to City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who represents District 5, which includes Solano Avenue. There must be a six-foot clear area for pedestrians to pass, and many sidewalks are not wide enough to allow both tables and a clear walkway.

In 2005, Capitelli proposed a “bulb-out” – a pop out from the sidewalk into the street – to improve pedestrian safety at the busy crossing of Colusa and Solano, near Peet’s.  His secondary vision was to make the sidewalk large enough for a tree and sidewalk seating.

Members of the Solano Avenue Association submitted design ideas, which the city reviewed and modified. Peet’s Coffee agreed to apply for the permit and to provide and maintain the furniture The final outcome is a collaboration of Peet’s and the Berkeley Department of Public Works.

“I am excited about the new sidewalk seating in our neighborhood and hope it signals the rejuvenation of commercial and pedestrian activity all along Solano Avenue in Berkeley,” said Capitelli.

A ribbon cutting ceremony for the new sidewalk seating is planned for noon Saturday outside Peet’s at 1825 Solano.

Berkeley received a “Safe Routes to Transit” grant that will eventually pay for bulb-outs at the opposite corner of Solano and Colusa, as well as the intersection at Fresno.  Capitelli’s office plans to work with La Farine Bakery to add outside seating if they want it.

Local businesses think the extra seating will draw more people to Solano Avenue.

“It provides ambiance on the street,” said Allen Caine, the executive director of the Solano Avenue Association. “Anything to keep Solano Avenue fresh for residents and out-of-city guests is a good thing.”

Others are concerned that now there will be dangerous pedestrian traffic jams.

“I’ve seen people socializing on the bump-out, and blocking the pedestrians trying to pass,” said Magowan. “I’ve seen two people fall.”

Berkeley carefully regulates the city’s eating establishments. There is a strict number of restaurants that can operate in any one neighborhood. Currently, the Elmwood business district has a limit of 7 full service restaurants and another 7 quick serve restaurants. Solano Avenue has a limit of 12, although 27 are permitted to operate, due to grandfathering of established locations.  The popular North Shattuck area, which includes the Gourmet Ghetto from Delaware to Rose streets, is limited to 27 food service establishments.

The city restricts the number of restaurants in any one neighborhood in order to promote a diversified business area. Sidewalk seating, however, is a way to maintain the number of restaurants, but permit them to serve more people.

Whether you like the idea of sidewalk seating, or just find it annoying, it’s clear that it’s something the public wants, and that most people want a balance of ambiance, convenience and safety. Enjoy, and have a seat while you’re at it.

Freelance writers with story pitches can email