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

At a Greenwich Planning & Zoning workshop on outdoor dining this week, the commission discussed the results of an August public survey as well as the future of permanent, seasonal outdoor dining inside the parking stall “nodes” in the area of Greenwich Avenue.

P&Z director Katie DeLuca said 2,000 people, mostly Greenwich residents, responded to the survey:

• 62% said they like outdoor dining and don’t mind the loss of parking

• 43% said they like dining outdoor dining in the nodes

The commissioners discussed outdoor dining in the context of a $75,000 budget the BET approved for a study of downtown.

They agreed that amount was insufficient to study so many moving parts, including outdoor dining, intersection improvements, parking, traffic, potential development in the Island Beach at Horseneck lots, pending redevelopment of the Greenwich train station, and transformative expansion of Bruce Museum. Also, of course are the 8-30g affordable housing proposals for downtown which are not subject to local zoning regs: One atop 125 Greenwich Ave, one at 240 Greenwich Ave with 60 units, and a six-story development with 100 units at Benedict Court.

The conversation focused on maintaining the “vibrancy” of Greenwich Avenue.

“There’s bussing and hostess stations outside, which were never part of the approvals. I think those are contributing the influx of cockroaches and rats. I won’t name specific restaurants, but I’ve seen where they have a piece of wood over a storm drain. I don’t know if that’s allowed.”

– Shanice Becker, P&Z Planner

Certainly many will remember all the fretting about empty storefronts prior to the pandemic, and the Amazon boogeyman sabotaging retail as we knew it.

Today the Avenue is nothing if not vibrant. Some quote Yogi Berra who said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

“I don’t think anyone had at the top of their list a global pandemic as the solution, but that’s exactly what happened,” DeLuca said. “Now you’re back to having what people perceive to be a jam packed downtown and you hear all the time there’s nowhere to park.”

P&Z commission chair Margarita Alban reminded her colleagues that the purview of the commission was to address the vitality question.

“It’s actually our job. The state statutes delegate to us in our planning role, to determine the highest and best use for land in the town,” Alban said.

She explained the Selectmen can vote to continue the nodes, but the P&Z commission determines what goes on within them.

Commissioner Peter Lowe asked, “Can we set a regulation that says no outdoor dining within the nodes?”

“Yes,” said town planner Katie DeLuca.

Commissioner Arn Welles warned of potential consequences of making the outdoor dining “nodes” permanent on a seasonal basis.

He said if restaurants drive out retailers, “…we’ll have tons of people down there and it’ll be like Delray on Atlantic Avenue (Florida) and it’s all restaurants, all party, and all drinking, and the retailers will be driven out of there. We need to think about the retailers as well.”

“I personally am not happy with continuing the nodes,” Ms Alban said. “We did them for the pandemic, we did not do them for perpetuity.”

“People surveyed indicate they’re in favor of these nodes, but is Greenwich Ave suited to accommodate outdoor dining? It’s not Paris with wide boulevards,” said Peter Lowe. “The genesis of all this outdoor dining was Covid.”

Outdoor dining node on Greenwich Ave. Sept 14, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Ms DeLuca talked about downtown being an “ecosystem” with limited parking resources that needed to be managed.

“What is the tipping Point? Is there a tipping point?” she asked. “Have we passed the tipping point? Maybe we should be looking at additional parking management.”

She noted that the Dept of Parking Services created satellite parking for employees and merchants in nearby lots off the Avenue.

Another idea she said was the possibility of price structuring the meters with higher prices on Greenwich Avenue than in the municipal lots in the rear.

She said the immediate issue to be addressed was outdoor dining and getting out from under state regulations and back to zoning.

What’s the urgency?

Shanice Becker, a Planner at P&Z, has been tracking applications, seating and outdoor dining violations, including issues of ADA accessibility, noise, health and safety.

“A nurse called me who lives over a restaurant. She called me because she couldn’t sleep at night and she was working double and triple shifts to fight Covid,” Becker said.

“There’s bussing and hostess stations outside, which were never part of the approvals. I think those are contributing the influx of cockroaches and rats,” Becker continued. “I won’t name specific restaurants, but I’ve seen where they have a piece of wood over a storm drain. I don’t know if that’s allowed.”

Ms DeLuca agreed. “When you have outdoor tables, there is going to be some amount of hosing down the road and hosing down food pieces into the drains.”

Another complaint was against loud music. The approvals clearly state “no amplified music,” but this is a common violation.

Ms Becker said she was at a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where the music was so loud that a fire alarm went off. “Literally, no one moved,” she said. “That’s a serious concern.”

“We’ve been working with DPW. Some have violations within their nodes and we’ve been contemplating whether the nodes should be removed,” DeLuca said. “The zoning regs do say, and it’s clear on the sign-off memo, that you have to stay in compliance, and if you don’t you’re in jeopardy of losing your outdoor dining the following year.”

Commissioner Arn Wells asked whether the town had adequate enforcement.

“I can tell you, we do not,” DeLuca said.

The town has one Zoning Enforcement Officer and three inspectors – one is part time, priorities for zoning enforcement are for unsafe apartments.

DeLuca described the restaurant violations as rampant and lingering.

There are 96 restaurants with outdoor dining – both approved or unapproved – and 41 in downtown, which is mostly Greenwich Ave but also immediate side streets.

She said there had always been violations, but nothing like post-pandemic.

• Townwide 75 out of 96 restaurants with outdoor dining are in violation, mostly with increased number of seats.

• 21 have outdoor dining despite not having approval or even submitting an application.

• 19 out of 41 downtown restaurants have violations.

Outdoor dining node on Greenwich Ave. Sept 14, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Prior to the pandemic, restaurants were permitted to have a certain number of seats. They were required to go before P&Z and request outdoor dining in an area that could include town property, but not private parking lots. The maximum seating limit did not increase: The seats indoors would decrease according to the number of seats outdoors. That maintained the parking requirement, which is generally one space per three seats.

After the pandemic, the town wanted to get people outdoors. Under executive orders and House bills, restaurants could exceed the total of number seats they were approved for.

The overall number of seats grew from about 3,000 to just under 4,000, with an increased parking demand of 291.

In downtown, that translates to about 22 more seats per restaurant than originally approved.

Outdoor dining node at Bianca at 30 Greenwich Ave. July 2022

Due to the increased number of seats and the fact that the outdoor dining seats are inside parking stalls, this has contributed to the shortage of parking. And remember that restaurants in buildings that are within front and rear building lines are exempt from parking requirements to begin with.

(P&Z Approves 200+ Seat Greek Restaurant in Downtown Greenwich Aug 3, 2022)

As for support of a parking garage, while there is no specific plan, DeLuca said the survey indicated about 50% of respondents would be in support.

Outdoor dining inside a node on Greenwich Ave. July 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Commissioner Dennis Yeskey said that indicates attitudes may have shifted in favor of a parking garage.

Mr. Yeskey vigorously defended outdoor dining nodes, which he described as a boon to the town.

“It sounds to me like there’s a design problem,” Yeskey said.

Yeskey said the commission should study how to improve outdoor dining, not eliminate it.

“I know some restaurant owners. When they bitch about something, I tell them you doubled your restaurant on the town, and your revenues have tripled. You have more alcohol and everything else. Don’t talk to me about some pipsy little violation somewhere.”

“I don’t want rats and rodents,” he said, adding that the solution was better enforcement.

The workshop was the beginning of a conversation and there will be future opportunities for public input and possible new regulations.

Stay tuned.

See also:

P&Z Outdoor Dining Workshop Feedback: Unsightly, Unneeded, Unfair
July 13, 2022