As Cold Weather Approaches, Greenwich Ave Road Closures for Outdoor Dining Are Reconsidered

A Greenwich Board of Selectmen’s Zoom public hearing on Tuesday drew 85 participants.

The topic? Greenwich Avenue parking and outdoor dining.

Outdoor dining on the bottom of Greenwich Avenue at 12:00 noon on Oct 27, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

The meeting opened with remarks from Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo who said that back in March, the Selectmen and Planning & Zoning worked together within guidelines of the Governor’s executive orders to create outdoor dining and save businesses.

“What was a preventative measure, turned out to be not only a lifesaver for the Avenue, but really has given it new life,” he said.

Greenwich began its first stage of transforming Greenwich Avenue to an open air pedestrian mall by closing off two blocks to vehicular traffic on June 2.

Originally two blocks were closed at the bottom of the Ave, but after a couple weeks, the block that features Richards department store was reopened, along with Grigg Street.

(Selectmen Modify Greenwich Ave Vehicle Closure; Diane’s Books Says “We Will Not Survive” (June 16)

“The community has responded very well to this,” Camillo continued. “There remains one issue, where I’d like to hear a little more. It’s the last block.”

Selectperson Jill Oberlander said that going forward she would like to see greater public input and transparency.

“This spring was unprecedented for all of us,” Oberlander said, adding, “We didn’t do enough public outreach to determine not only what our retailers want, but what our residents want.”

Panelists in an Oct 27 Zoom public hearing included P&Z director Katie DeLuca, Fire Marshal Chris Pratico, Selectwoman Lauren Rabin, Selectperson Jill Oberlander, First Selectman Fred Camillo, Fire Dept Chief Joseph McHugh and Police Chief James Heavey.

Oberlander called for a full and open dialogue. “The good and bad – and not just the restaurants, but how it effects restaurants off the Avenue, and the look and feel of the whole town.”

Planning & Zoning director Katie DeLuca clarified that while the Board of Selectmen serve as the town’s traffic authority, once the Governor’s executive orders expire, authority over outdoor dining rests with P&Z.

Governor Lamont’s executive orders are set to expire on Nov 9, but Camillo said he anticipates an announcement any day that they will be extended until February.

If Lamont’s executive orders are not extended, DeLuca said it is likely the P&Z commission would take the issue up at their Nov 5 meeting, which includes a public hearing.

Outdoor dining on the bottom of Greenwich Avenue at 12:00 noon on Oct 27, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

She said there are questions and issues with tents, including the requirement that they have two sides open. She said restaurants with outdoor dining permits were surveyed and indicated they wished to continue.

Lauren Rabin said the board was eager for feedback. “We’re learning. We reserve the right to get smarter, make changes and adapting,” she said.

Rabin said the First Selectman’s “Reimagine Greenwich” committee was considering permanent jersey barriers and other options to keep the Town’s business districts vibrant.

Camillo said that with the Avenue becoming more pedestrian oriented, and police no longer directing traffic at intersections, officers were freed to patrol on foot and on bicycles.

Outdoor dining on the bottom of Greenwich Avenue at 12:00 noon on Oct 27, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

“We probably will not reassign a police officer to Elm Street,” Police Chief Heavey said, adding that there is a small group of people who would like the officers returned to fixed positions. “We might have to put an officer at Havemeyer at certain times.”

“But we also want to make sure the ladder and engine from station 1 can get in and out of headquarters without delays,” he added.

“All these traffic calming measures and bump outs are being done with emergency vehicles in mind,” Camillo said.

Fire Dept Chief Joseph McHugh said his department needs to maneuver fire apparatus on the Avenue in a safe, efficient and timely manner, especially given the upcoming inclement weather and snow.

Outdoor dining on the bottom of Greenwich Avenue at 12:00 noon on Oct 27, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

Greenwich Fire Marshal Chris Pratico said portable propane heaters are not allowed under tents or canopies.

And, he said, “(Propane heaters) have to be 5 et away from umbrellas and tents. They need a building permit to use them. The only thing that would be allowed, as far as heaters, would be a professional tent heater, which is a separate unit, ducted under the tent. Then you have the issue of where are you going to put the propane tank – the tank has to be 10 ft away from the building and 10 ft away from the tents. It’s a real big debacle.”

“And we’re worried about the snow load,” Pratico added. “They’re talking about a little bit of snow Friday night. I don’t really see how this extension is going to work.”

Mary Hull from Greenwich Green & Clean said her group had been working with landscapers to refill the containers with small trees and flowers.

“I listen,” she said. “I suggest, if we could, continue to put the barriers up in order to enable driving all the way down (Greenwich Ave).”

Outdoor dining on the bottom of Greenwich Avenue at 12:00 noon on Oct 27, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

Hull said people who are permanently or temporarily handicapped have an issue accessing the bottom of Greenwich Avenue.

“An enormous number of people have to be dropped off,” she said. “It’s supposed to be 75% (of capacity allowed) inside, and those people cannot be dropped off at the top and walk down and walk back up again.”

“If it’s humanly possible to get one lane of traffic all the way from the top of the Ave to the bottom, with the use of barriers, that would help both the stores and restaurants,” Hull added.

Local real estate developer John Fareri described the decision to create outdoor dining as “bold and quick.”

“I understand there are concerns from merchants down there. It is good for restaurants,” Fareri said. “But it might not be good for the other merchants.”

Camillo said what was being considered was opening up a single, one-way lane on the Ave to allow people to be dropped off and access the merchants. He said a trolley was still being considered to shuttle people from the parking garage at town hall every 30 minutes.

Outdoor dining on the bottom of Greenwich Avenue at 12:00 noon on Oct 27, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

“We’ll have to make sure people who are dining are protected,” he said.

“That would mean some jersey barriers there,” Camilo added. “Your points are well taken.”

P&Z commissioner Peter Levy suggested mountable curbs and warming mats to melt ice and snow and create access.

“I think the mountable curbs present some safety concerns,” said DPW deputy commissioner Jim Michel. “That’s all stuff that could be looked at. I don’t think its feasible this year, but for long term it might be.”

Nancy Burke said she wanted to see Greenwich Avenue reopened.

“I’m very concerned about Greenwich Ave and the merchants. Older people like myself have to walk pretty far to get to those stores downtown,” she said, mentioning St. Moritz Pastry Shop and Michaelangelo fine engraved gifts specifically.

Mrs. Burke said the weather is turning colder and when she and her husband recently dined inside a restaurant, the doors were kept open and they were cold. “I won’t do that again,” she said.

Camillo said he’d talked to mayors of neighboring towns who had not initiated outdoor dining early in the pandemic and many restaurants had gone out of business.

“I heard downtowns that were not thriving. Our goal is to make Greenwich a lot more attractive and have a more aesthetically pleasing avenue with the bump outs,” he said. “It’s nicer and it will enhance public safety and sight lines.”

Margo O’Brien, daughter of Diane Garrett who owns Diane’s Books on Grigg Street, said the store experienced a 40% drop in revenue when two blocks were closed. Now, with just one block closed, they are down 20%. She said the store brings in 30% of its annual income in November and December.

“We will cease to exist,” she said. “I think my mother’s store is a unique thing and makes Greenwich special. I implore everyone to think about the closure of the Avenue. For our business, it would not be tenable…Any solutions you could come up with…The bump outs are terrific.”

A “COVID-19 Mandatory Mask Zone” sign near Elm Street and South Avenue in New Canaan, on Oct. 21, 2020. Credit: Michael Dinan

O’Brien said there are a lot of unmasked people walking around the Avenue and had heard concerns from many elderly customers.

She said she was concerned for her own mother, who is 81, and said it would be nice if the town addressed the mask issue.

New Canaan created “mandatory mask zones” in their heavily heavily foot-trafficked areas “mandatory mask zones.” They are in effect from 9:00am to 9:00pm. (‘COVID-19 Mandatory Mask Zone’ Signs Posted Downtown. Oct 1, 2020)

West Elm Street resident Dan Quigley said his family loved the outdoor dining, and that his young son could play out in the road and ride his scooter.

“It was a necessary thing to do to help the restaurants survive,” he said. “It has a European feel to it, which enhances the town. But it’s a work in progress.”

John Stewart said he and his wife have been tenants at 375 Greenwich Avenue for 15 years, and since the block closed to traffic and parking he had probably lost 30 lbs carrying boxes to his car and that parking is hard to find.

“It’s a building that only has access via Greenwich Ave. It’s been very hard for us not to be able to access our building,” he said. “I can’t pull up to my home with my car which forces me to carry large amounts of my products which I wind up doing late at night.”

Stewart said other residents have trouble with laundry and groceries.

“It’s been very difficult especially when restaurants are busy and there’s no parking,” he said, adding there was no access from the back of his building.

“I’ve reached out to Greenwich Police two to three times a week referencing there are cars illegally parked to go eat dinner and I’m trying to unload and carry things,” he continued.

Darryl Frey said he had developed an app for valet parking, which he believed would help the elderly and merchants. With the app a valet is deployed to meet people at their location.

“My valets are masked, gloved and disinfect,” he said. “It is cashless and ticketless because of the app. It’s almost touchless.”

Marianne Hillmer said people who live downtown are feeding parking meters all day and the bumpouts had removed a lot of parking spaces.

“That’s their only option,” she said. “I proposed a downtown residential parking permit and opening up the lower level of town hall parking.”

Camillo said he was due to discuss those ideas with deputy chief Mark Marino later in the week.

Mike Pappa, owner of Michaelangelo said he was celebrating 41 years on Greenwich Avenue and is currently located at the very bottom block of the Ave.

Outdoor dining inside tents outside Putnam Restaurant at 12:00 noon on Oct 27, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

“It’s great for the restaurants, but I want everyone to listen: There are 20 retail stores and 8 restaurants,” he said adding that he’d been in touch with retailers who are “totally suffering.”

“Our seniors cannot move to us. Customers are not coming. A few stores have left and more are leaving in the next few weeks,” he said, adding that retailers are walking away from leases.

Pappa said back on Sept 10 the retailers had requested 15 minute parking spots and bump outs.

“St Moritz (pastry shop), 60 years in business, is basically going out of business,” he said. “I get calls every day. Someone permanently parks in the handicapped spot in front of the movie theater. I had to lay off two employees who have been with us a dozen years. We need a solution.”

Pappa said merchants are also unhappy that restaurant seating keeps creeping into their storefronts. “It’s a high rent area,” he said. “We’re really suffering and want the Town’s help.”

Ms DeLuca said merchants are not allowed to put their seating in front of adjacent stores without express written permission from the adjacent business.

“Elm Street Oyster House worked something out with Aux Delices,” she said, adding that she would be happy to talk to the the restaurant Mr. Pappa referred to.

Jason Palmer, who runs Petticoat Lane, said his business was doing well recently. he previously told GFP he could hardly keep bathing suits in stock with so many people spending times in their swimming pools during Covid.

“I feel bad for the people down at the bottom of the Avenue,” he said.

Meredith Bach with Rand Insurance said she is president of New Canaan’s Chamber of Commerce.

“The bottom line is people won’t want to eat outside in the middle of winter. New Canaan has recommended to the restaurants to invest in their air quality systems instead of tents.

Adam Zakka whose family owned business runs Mediterraneo, Terra and East End, complimented the Town of Greenwich on how it executed outdoor dining.

“I commiserate with all the retailers and I want to have the most symbiotic relationship with everybody down there,” he said. “We have benefited from outdoor dining. I’m not sure we would have made it without it. We’d like to retain some outdoor dining and acquiesce to the retailers for some parking.”

He suggested the retailers pivot to online commerce.

Charlie Hubbard, owner of 375 Greenwich Avenue, said he rents out 11 apartments and residents are struggling with lack of access and parking.

Hubbard said he also has a vacant commercial space that was previously a grab-and-go type of restaurant.

“If you have to walk in to grab-and-go, it’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “Opening up the street would be beneficial.”

Alyssa Keleshian Bonomo said she applauded the town on the outdoor dining. But she said, “The backbone of the community growing up here has been our entrepreneurs. Those who have built their businesses and committed to the town in every way, like St Moritz and Michaelangelo.

“I agree with the bump outs and (opening) one lane down the Avenue,” she said. “It’s just common sense to make it work for everyone. It will work for the restaurants and retailers, and for the fire and safety. It’s really time to listen to the folks who are hurting down there.”

Camillo said the Town would continue to work on a solution. “We’ll do our best to make it work for everybody. We don’t want it to work for just 75%.”

“The department heads will circle back on this and go over thoughts and suggestions,” he said.