On Thursday the Board of Selectmen discussed a request from a retail business owner for a “node” in a parking space outside his store to display his wares on the basis of “equity” with restaurants.
Restaurants in the vicinity of Greenwich Avenue operate both on the sidewalks and in “nodes” created inside jersey barriers from April until November. Fees for restaurants were waived in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. In 2021 they were reduced to 25%. This year restaurants cannot exceed four parking spaces and the fee is 100%, which is on average $23 per day.
Tory Lenzo, owner of Blankenship Dry Goods at 16 Greenwich Avenue, said restaurateurs and retailers should have the same rights.
Mr. Lenzo, who participated in P&Z’s outdoor dining discussion via Zoom earlier in the week, said originally when the pandemic swept through, outdoor dining made sense as a way to keep restaurants afloat. But he noted that with the pandemic dissipating, the situation has changed.
“It’s become a transaction with the town, for not much money, and they’re really growing their space,” he said. “It’s an augmentation for their businesses and has nothing to do with Covid because no one has a mask on indoors.”
Lenzo requested the Selectmen take a vote to give the same right to retailers.
“Let every single business have the same right – whether you allow the outdoor space, or don’t, I can’t understand why these restaurants have these extra spaces.”
Lenzo said he estimated his sales would triple if he was allowed to use a parking space to sell his merchandise.
History of Outdoor Dining
First Selectman Fred Camillo said prior to the pandemic, the Selectmen were already considering outdoor dining as a way to enhance the experience in the Greenwich Avenue central business district.
At the time there were dozens of empty storefronts on the Avenue.
“People seem to love it,” Camillo said.
“If everybody wanted to go outside, there would be no parking spaces,” Camillo said referring to retailers. “If you want me to say, ‘Get rid of outdoor dining now,’ that would probably fail 90-10. I’m pretty sure about that one.”
“I would not be in favor of pulling back outdoor dining,” Camillo said.
Mr. Lenzo said that was not his request.
He said his request was to give outdoor parking spaces to retailers for nodes, just like restaurants.
“I view it as inequality, a matter of government dictating to business A what they’re allowed to do and business B is not,” Lenzo said.
There was some discussion about whether retailers were allowed to display wares on the sidewalk, and Mr. Lenzo said police had responded quickly when he put merchandise on display in his doorway.
Selectwoman Lauren Rabin said she understood the issue of equity.
“Parking is a decades-long issue,” Rabin said. “There is the concept of what people walking need, what people riding bicycles need, Complete Streets – as we think about what we want Greenwich Ave to be is part of a broader discussion and parking is at the center of it.”
Is it Time for Tiered Parking Downtown?
Mr. Lenzo suggested adding tiered parking in the Greenwich Ave area.
“Do we have appetite now for parking structures that we didn’t have years ago?” Ms Rabin asked. “Do we have appetite for very tasteful streetlights at intersections? It’s worth revisiting in a strategic way rather than an individual request.”
Mr. Camillo said there were efforts to keep merchants and employees from feeding the meters on Greenwich Ave. He pointed to the 12 new parking spaces proposed in the vicinity of Greenwich Ave as part of the intersection improvements projects, and the 200 spaces in 12-hour municipal lots available by permit for Greenwich Avenue residents and merchants.
He said that in the past residents had balked at the idea of parking garages, but agreed they might be done tastefully, especially if built into the existing grade. He noted that was done at town hall.
“We have an idea about building into the grade or underneath by the Board of Education (the Havemeyer building at 290 Greenwich Ave). Where the baseball field is, you can probably get a lot of spaces there, and it’s right there by Greenwich Avenue,” Camillo said.
But, he said, “I don’t think there’s an appetite for standalone parking structures. We had that conversation 20 years ago in the RTM and people were vehemently against them. I don’t blame them.”
Regulations on Displaying Merchandise on Sidewalks and Street
P&Z commission chair Margarita Alban said during the pandemic Executive Orders overrode local zoning, and there was flexibility for retailers to display merchandise on sidewalks. But the Executive Orders have expired.
Today retailers are not allowed to display wares either in the street or on sidewalks, except during annual designated sidewalk sales days, which are taking place through Sunday.
“We do not allow retailers to go into the street,” she continued. “It is not allowed by zoning to have outdoor display of merchandise.”
That said, Alban said the Board of Selectmen could approve nodes for retail use.
“We would then have to amend our zoning regulations to allow the retailers to put their merchandise in the nodes that you have approved,” she explained.
Alban noted that the Selectmen have “control over what happens in the streets” and if the Selectmen were to vote to approve retailers having nodes, P&Z would see it through.
“Just the way you did outdoor dining, you have to approve the nodes in the street,” Alban said. “Then we (P&Z) for example, do how many tables you can have, how to get permission and to meet fire code.”
P&Z director Katie DeLuca explained that the Chamber of Commerce sidewalk sales days, per the town charter, are handled through the Greenwich Police Dept.
“We do not allow any display of retail goods on town sidewalks, outside what is in the charter for sidewalk sales,” DeLuca said.
“The reason we don’t have (retail goods on sidewalks) is because if you look at the purpose statement in most of our business zone regulations to do with retail, it’s about the ‘orderly display,’ and when you have things that are outside on display, there are ADA issues and visual impact issues,” DeLuca said.
“I think Mr. Lenzo’s point is there is an equity issue,” DeLuca continued. “From a zoning standpoint, all the restaurants in the zone are permitted to have outdoor dining as long as they can meet the criteria.”
She said a request from one retailer would have to apply to all retailers.
Ms Alban said that during the outdoor dining workshop Tuesday night, there were voices very concerned about tight parking on the Avenue. She said 16% of parking spots on Greenwich Avenue are currently given over to outdoor dining nodes.
Mr. Camillo said the issue was worthy of further discussion.
Though no vote was taken, Mr. Camillo offered to visit Mr. Lenzo’s store in person.