It started a few years ago with the A-frame signs. The signs were about two feet wide and three feet tall and they advertised what was for sale inside the business. The signs were placed on the sidewalk in front of the business. In the beginning there was one; now there are 13.
The Crouse-Marshall business district consists of two blocks: Marshall Street is one block long and forms a T-intersection with the one-block sales area of Crouse Avenue with a total of about 42 businesses—street level, basement or second-floor. This two-block shopping area is exactly on the edge of Syracuse University. In fact, Marshall Street only has stores on one side; the other side has University buildings that house classrooms and offices.
After the A-frame signs came the sidewalk cafes. The two-block Crouse-Marshall area has a great many “restaurants,” ranging from Starbucks to Faegan’s Café and Pub (an upscale bar/restaurant with waitress service). Seven of them now have tables and chairs outside of their eating establishments on the sidewalk. The restaurants have to get permits from the city for these sidewalk placements.
I spoke with Sam White who is the Right-of-Way Permit Coordinator in the Central Permit Office in the Business Development section of the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development in the City of Syracuse—and sometimes those web sites are really helpful, aren’t they? Anyway, what Sam White—who was very pleasant, reasonable and informative—said was that restaurants have to apply for sidewalk café permits. On the back of the permit they have to draw the outline and specify the number of feet they want, and then the permit is issued. The problem, as Sam said and I affirmed, is that sidewalk cafes are subject to creep: the permit is issued for three feet and within a few years it has crept out to five feet.
So first we’ve got the A-frames and then we’ve got the sidewalk cafes. Now, here’s the problem: we’ve also got people using wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes and braces. The Crouse-Marshall area, with its drugstore, banks, clothing stores, grocery store, bars and restaurants, is the closest area—only two blocks away—from an apartment building that has about fifty residents who use wheelchairs. It is one block north of a nursing home with people who travel by wheelchairs and walkers. It is one block west of Crouse Hospital and its physicians’ office building, heavily patronized by people in wheelchairs, likewise Crouse-Marshall is about three blocks away from the Veterans Affairs Hospital, which gives a lot of traffic. Patients pushing IV poles come out of Crouse Hospital to go to the drugstore and buy cigarettes.
So now we have A-frame signs, sidewalk cafes, people in wheelchairs, and—this week—students. There are about 21,000 students at Syracuse University; about 3,500 freshmen, each accompanied by two parents, and all of whom want to visit “M Street”—the Crouse-Marshall shopping area.
And then somebody put up a place to sell posters. That place took up about eight feet of the sidewalk perpendicular from the curb, and perhaps 20 feet of the sidewalk parallel to the curb. It was now effectively impossible for a person in a wheelchair to travel down the sidewalk. The sidewalks are public property; they belong to the citizens, not to the property owners or the University.
So I wheeled up to one of the two young fellows staffing the poster place. English was not his first language, and he didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked him who gave him authority to use the sidewalk. Finally, what he told me was that “Mr. Jacobs” had told him to set up there on the sidewalk. The young man waved to the storefronts and said that this Mr. Jacobs owned many of the stores. And, no, he had never met Mr. Jacobs, but he could give me Mr. Jacobs phone number. Not necessary, I said, and went home.
The next morning I got on the computer, then called Sam White. His assistant said he was on the phone but would call me back. When he returned my call we maneuvered around as strangers do, then got to my complaint about the poster place.
Ah, said Sam. This morning the police ticketed them and shut them down.
Ah, cried I ecstatically, sometimes the system actually works!
Sam went on to tell me that when I first called he had been on the phone listening to an angry person who did not identify himself but who claimed to have applied for and been given a permit several months ago to set up the poster place. Ah, no, said Sam. He had no record of any such application being received or approved.
Well, says I, let me tell you about the conversation I had yesterday with the fellow staffing the poster place. So I tell Right-of-Way Coordinator Samuel White about “Mr. Jacobs.”
Ah, says Sam, in a voice filled with recognition. Mr. Jacobs owns a bunch of properties in Armory Square. Sam-the-coordinator being a cool guy, he doesn’t say anything else but I’m guessing it’s not the first time he’s had a run-in with Mr. Jacobs.
So I ask Sam a lot of questions, mostly about what the regulations are for sidewalks and what my rights are as a citizen, and Sam gives me lots of answers. I am, thank you very much, in pig-heaven: a citizen and a government employee are having a respectful conversation about the rules and regulations of governance. Sam and Anne are working together in a transparent exchange of information to ensure that the government is serving the people. I mean, this is so exciting! I’m going to run right out and vote for Stephanie Minor again, even if she isn’t running for anything.
Sam White then gives me the phone number for the Division of Code Enforcement. I call and get Tracey, a clerk, who tells me that the investigators are all out of the office until Monday morning. It is 4:45 on Friday afternoon and I think of the 3,500 students, 7,000 parents, A-frame signs, sidewalk cafes, and me and my friends trying to fight our way through in wheelchairs, so I persist. You can’t just shut down the government for the weekend, can you?