Spring is Coming; Selectmen Chew on Input about Seasonal Street Dining

At Thursday’s Board of Selectmen agenda included outdoor dining – specifically in the street inside nodes from jersey barriers.

The action requested is to allow public parking spaces to be used for restaurant outdoor dining.

The permitted time of year starts Monday, April 3, 2023, a little over a month away.

Outdoor dining inside a node on Greenwich Ave. Photo: Leslie Yager

The backstory is that outdoor dining was expanded broadly in Greenwich during the pandemic as a result of Covid emergency measures and special legislation. This likely saved many restaurants from going out of business.

In December the Planning & Zoning commission updated voted to approve a text amendment to add rules for outdoor dining, partly in response to dozens of restaurant violations. Some restaurants operated without permits. There were complaints of loud music, sidewalks blocked, lost parking and vermin.

With the updated amendment, restaurants capacity will be enforced. For example, for restaurants with 100 seat capacity the total number of seats combined for indoor and outdoor cannot exceed 100. To put 25 seats in the street, 25 would need to be removed from indoors. During the pandemic, outdoor seating was in addition to indoor seating.

Also, restaurants must provide a six foot ADA ramp to their nodes. Another firm rule is restaurants must refrain from amplified sound or music.

(P&Z Revised Outdoor Dining Reg Adds Teeth: Violations Risk Immediate Closure Dec 23, 2022)

P&Z’s jurisdiction is over what is allowed inside the “nodes.”

The Selectmen, as the town’s traffic authority, regulate the use of public parking spaces.

Outdoor dining node at La Taqueria at 10 Greenwich Ave.

Town Administrator Ben Branyan said on Thursday that parking fees per stall would change depending on the Selectmen’s determination. He acknowledged there is a proposal from parking services to double the fee for metered spaces on Greenwich Ave. (Parking Meter Fees May Double on Greenwich Ave Feb 23, 2023)

Mr. Branyan noted the $1,592 parking fee for restaurants per parking space in the street would double to $3,184 if the meter fees double on the Ave.

Fees for jersey barriers were proposed to be updated from $15 to $25 per linear foot.

Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo said restaurants might have gone out of business without street dining during the pandemic.

Initially the town did not charge for the barriers. The second year there was a modest fee and last year the fees were raised so that the town did not lose any meter revenue.

“It’s been a game changer for Greenwich. It’s livened up the place. We love it,” Camillo said.

Democratic Selectwoman Janet Stone McGuigan said she viewed outdoor dining through “a different lens.”

“Our parking spaces are very much a limited resource,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re allocating the use of those parking spaces fairly.”

Ms Stone McGuigan continued, adding that because of street dining, access to other business was limited and it decreased available parking.

Parking spot in front of Blankenship Dry Goods is partially blocked by an outdoor dining node for La Taqueria and rendered unusable. Summer 2022

Selectwoman Lauren Rabin said she was also very concerned about lost parking.

She also asked if there was a way to position the jersey barriers at an angle so fewer spots were lost to nodes.

Rabin applauded P&Z for their amended regulation.

“From a Planning & Zoning perspective, other feedback we get is we’re choosing which businesses benefit from being able to go outdoors,” Rabin said. “Is there a clothing store that wants to put a rack outside?”

“Is there a way to be fairer to all retail-slash-restaurants on Greenwich Ave? Not just the restaurants,” she asked.

Camillo said one merchant had been told he could put a rack on the sidewalk as long he didn’t block the sidewalk.

“That’s actually not true,” said Ms Stone McGuigan.

P&Z director Patrick Larow said, “That would not have been a direction of my office.”

“Maybe that’s something we want to revisit where you have “Sidewalk Friday” for four hours they can go out, as long as they’re not blocking the sidewalk. Something for the merchants who want to get out there.”

Larow said restaurants must apply for zoning approval annually, and that permits would not necessarily be granted to everybody who had a node during the pandemic.

“There’s definitely going to be a reduction in occupancy rates,” Larow said. “There’s going to be some attrition from people who don’t want to pay the fee and people who don’t want to be limited by the occupancy requirements.”

During public comment, Stephanie Mulligan suggested painting the jersey barriers in appealing colors.

Camillo said it might be possible to paint the barriers. “The only thing zoning told us was no advertising.”

Dead rat in a back yard a block from Greenwich Ave. July 2023

She also suggested building wooden platforms inside the nodes to make them level with the sidewalk.

“It makes it easier for people with strollers to enjoy your dining experience,” Mulligan said. “More importantly it makes it accessible to anyone in a wheelchair.”

Camillo said the platforms might be problematic given food would fall through the gaps.

“Some municipalities have these, but food falls through the cracks and that was great for our little four legged friends,” he said.

During P&Z workshops last summer many people complained about lost parking, unattractive jersey barriers and an increase in rats and cockroaches downtown. One merchant complained the outdoor dining nodes gave a limited resource to one group at the expense of others.

P&Z Outdoor Dining Workshop: Balancing Vibrancy with Health, Safety & Limited Parking September 15, 2022

P&Z Outdoor Dining Workshop Feedback: Unsightly, Unneeded, Unfair July 2022

As for the platform making it easier for people in wheelchairs to access the dining nodes in the street, the P&Z commission already addressed this with their updated regulation in December 2022.

Restaurants are now required to create ADA compliant ramps inside their nodes for accessibility.

Zoning Enforcement

Susan Foster asked the First Selectman to include an additional zoning enforcement officer in his next budget.

“With all these restaurants in violation that knew the law,” she said. “This is only one area where a new zoning enforcement officer is needed on a regular basis. It can’t be done just once in the summer.”

P&Z chair Margarita Alban said additional enforcement staff was “desperately needed.”

She said because of the shortage of Zoning Enforcement staff, there wouldn’t be enough time to give warnings.

“If someone is in violation, we are going to have to cancel their permit because some of the violations are life-safety,” Alban said. “We have to have some way of controlling it.”

Also, during public comment Christina Volkwein said she opposed the continuation of outdoor dining in the Greenwich Avenue roadway.

“What started as an extraordinary accommodation during Covid seems to be turning into a permanent fixture, and I don’t understand why we’re not discussing the fundamental question of whether it’s wise or just to have restaurants paying rent to their landlords having space in our public right of way, which we need to navigate driving and parking on the Avenue.”

“We also have a growing problem with rats that are attracted to the food dropped in the road and on the sidewalks. They’re in our town center and adjacent neighborhoods,” Volkwein added. “We have to stop extending what was a special accommodation during Covid to a permanent fixture of our town.”

Grigg Street, a one-way street off Greenwich Avenue, has only two on street parking spaces. Diane’s books is at left.

Margo O’Brien, daughter of Dianne Garrett of Diane’s Books, said she was very upset not to hear mention of the merchants. She disagreed with the assumption that retail stores benefit from restaurant traffic.

“I utterly disagree with that. Without parking, Diane’s Books will cease to exist,” O’Brien said. “There seems to be a preference of restaurants over stores. There doesn’t seem to be any mention of retailers. How we’re going to make up for the 25% of taken away parking spaces. Nothing.”

“It’s not okay, especially where Diane’s Books is, there are many many restaurants. All of our customers want to park, shop and go. They do not want to park far away and they will not frequent our stores.”

“Instead of saying, ‘This is what we are going to do,’ there should have been a debate and reaching out to merchants, and instead of anecdotal evidence, real evidence of how it is effecting merchants…”

Mr. Camillo said there was only 15% decrease in parking spaces for the nodes, and that the town has created strategies to entice meter-feeders off the Avenue.

According to Mr. Branyan’s presentation, in the 2022 season, 63 parking stalls on or near Greenwich Ave were occupied with outdoor dining. Based on prior year utilization, with approximately 411 parking stalls, 15% of parking stalls are displaced.

“We have taken 164 meter feeders off the Avenue and directed them to municipal lots at a discount to open up spaces,” Camillo said. “We’re chipping away at a problem that’s been here 70 years.”

“We’re going to have to agree to disagree on the benefits of outdoor dining,” he added.

No vote was taken at Thursday’s meeting. The board welcomes public feedback and will tentatively discuss and vote on the topic at the board’s March 9 meeting at 10:00am in person at Town Hall or via Zoom.

This past week’s meeting will soon be uploaded to the GCTV YouTube channel so anyone interested can check it out there.