Sandwich boards, which have become part of a sidewalk renaissance in downtown Cedar Rapids, may soon be going citywide under city plans to streamline a cumbersome regulation.
City leaders are moving ahead with plans to eliminate a requirement that limits use of the signs to businesses in the city’s downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID), and then only with a city encroachment permit for use on the city sidewalks.
New requirements passed on a first reading by the City Council on August 26 allow the signs to be used on sidewalks anywhere in the city if they meet size and placement requirements, the main requirement being that they allow a six-foot clear zone on sidewalks for passing pedestrians.
Sandwich boards tell passing pedestrians not only that a business is open, but what kind of deals they can get for the day on a sandwich, drink or dessert. Some businesses, like Downtown Drug at 209 Second St. SE, just use them to advertise their presence.
The Blue Strawberry at 118 Second St. SE was probably the first of the current generation of downtown pubs, restaurants and coffee shops to get a sandwich board almost a decade ago.
Owner Mike Monahan said he just stuck the board out there on the sidewalk, assuming that someone would tell him if it violated any ordinances. He subsequently learned that he was required to leave a six-foot path for pedestrians, but that was about it for Mr. Monahan and just about everybody else who got a sidewalk sign. The encroachment permit requirement was not rigorously enforced.
The city of Cedar Rapids realized the current ordinance might be overly restrictive when it reviewed a complaint about a business’s sandwich board in the NewBo/Czech Village area, according to Seth Gunnerson of the city’s planning and zoning department. He said city officials realized that the business wasn’t even allowed to have a sandwich board if it did apply for an encroachment permit, because the signs were only allowed in the downtown SSMID.
The proposed regulations would allow any business to use a single sandwich board as long as it is within 20 feet of the front door and leaves six feet of sidewalk clearance. The signs can be no larger than 36 inches tall and 36 inches wide.
City council members voiced no major concerns with the ordinance. Council Member Scott Olson, who distributed the ordinance to 10 downtown businesses with sandwich boards, said two businesses indicated their sign boards were too large to meet the requirement, but otherwise the businesses seemed happy with the proposal.
Sandwich boards have been good for the Blue Strawberry’s business, according to Mr. Monahan.
“I see people stop and read them,” he said, “especially people who are not familiar with downtown.”
The sandwich board ordinance relaxation is the latest in a string of steps the city has taken to increase street-level interaction between businesses and potential customers. Others included the easing of regulations for opening outdoor cafes.
Mr. Monahan said having a sidewalk cafe, like having a sandwich board, has helped improve the street visibility of the Blue Strawberry. The city initially planned to charge a lease rate for sidewalk space that wasn’t realistic in terms of making it a profitable proposition for the Blue Strawberry, Mr. Monahan said, but after the situation was explained, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz helped get the rates down to a manageable level.
“We still need more people downtown, and that’s going to happen with the new CRST tower and Coventry Lofts coming,” said Mr. Monahan. He added that the sudden growth in downtown business establishments has been good for downtown, and now the area just needs more office workers to keep them all busy.
The growing amount of evening sidewalk traffic in downtown Cedar Rapids is directly related to the reopening of the Paramount Theater and the opening of the Doubletree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Hotel and Convention Center, Mr. Olson said. With all the additional traffic, he’s been trying to bring more city attention to the condition of sidewalks and streetscaping to improve the impression visitors receive of downtown.