At a Greenwich planning and zoning workshop on outdoor dining this week, the commission discussed the results of an August public inquiry as well as the future of permanent and seasonal outdoor dining in inside the parking “nodes” in the Greenwich Avenue area.
P&Z Director Katie DeLuca said 2,000 people, mostly Greenwich residents, responded to the survey:
• 62% said they liked to eat out and didn’t mind the loss of parking
• 43% said they liked eating outdoors in the knots
Commissioners discussed outdoor dining in the context of a $75,000 budget the BET approved for a downtown study.
They agreed the amount was insufficient to study so many moving parts, including outdoor dining, intersection improvements, parking, traffic, potential development of Island Beach lots in Horseneck, pending redevelopment of the Greenwich Station and the transformative expansion of the Bruce Museum. In addition, of course, there are the 8-30g affordable housing proposals for downtown that are not subject to local zoning laws: one at the top of 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.
Many will surely remember all the concern about empty storefronts before the pandemic and the Amazon boogeyman sabotaging retail as we knew it.
Today, the Avenue is nothing if not dynamic. Some quote Yogi Berra who said, “No one goes there anymore. There are too many people.”
“I don’t think anyone had a global pandemic on their minds as a solution, but that’s exactly what happened,” DeLuca said. “Now you’re back to what people perceive as a jam-packed downtown and you hear all the time that there’s nowhere to park.”
P&Z Commission Chair Margarita Alban reminded her colleagues that the commission’s mandate was to answer the question of vitality.
“That’s actually our job. State statutes delegate our planning role to us, to determine the highest and best use of land in the city,” Alban said.
She explained that the Selectmen can vote to continue nodes, but the P&Z commission determines what happens within them.
Commissioner Peter Lowe asked: “Can we make a rule banning al fresco dining in nodes? »
“Yes,” said city planner Katie DeLuca.
Commissioner Arn Welles warned of the potential consequences of making outdoor dining “nodes” permanent on a seasonal basis.
He said if restaurants chase retailers, “…we’ll have tons of people there and it’ll be like Delray on Atlantic Avenue (Florida) and it’s just restaurants, all parties and all drinks , and retailers will be driven out of there.We also need to think about retailers.
“Personally, I’m not happy with chasing knots,” Ms. Alban said. “We made them for the pandemic, we didn’t make them in perpetuity.”
“Respondents indicate that they are in favor of these nodes, but is Greenwich Ave suitable for hosting al fresco dining? It’s not Paris with wide boulevards,” said Peter Lowe. “The genesis of all this outdoor dining was Covid.”
Ms. DeLuca spoke of the downtown as an “ecosystem” with limited parking resources that needed to be managed.
“What is the tipping point? Is there a tipping point? ” she asked. “Are we past the tipping point? Maybe we should consider additional parking management.
She noted that the parking services department has created satellite parking for employees and merchants in lots near the avenue.
Another idea she mentioned was the possibility of structuring meter prices with higher prices on the avenue than in the municipal lots in the back.
She said the immediate issue to address was outdoor dining and getting out of state regulations and back into zoning.
What is the urgency?
P&Z planner Shanice Becker tracked applications, outdoor seating and dining violations, including ADA accessibility, noise, health and safety issues.
“A nurse called me who lives above a restaurant. She called me because she couldn’t sleep at night and was working double and triple shifts to fight Covid,” Becker said.
“There are bus and hostess stations outside, which have never been part of the approvals. I think these are contributing to 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 it’s allowed.”
Ms. DeLuca agreed. “When you have tables outside, there will be a certain amount of watering down the road and watering food bits down the drain.”
Another complaint was about the loud music. The endorsements 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. “It’s a serious concern.”
“We worked with DPW. Some have violations within their nodes and we considered removing the nodes,” DeLuca said. “The zoning regulations say, and it’s clear on the signing memo, that you must stay in compliance, and if you don’t, you risk losing your outdoor dining the following year.”
Commissioner Arn Wells asked if the city had an adequate app.
“I can tell you we don’t,” DeLuca said.
The city has one zoning enforcement officer and three inspectors – one is part-time, priorities for zoning enforcement are unsafe apartments.
DeLuca described the restaurant’s violations as rampant and persistent.
There are 96 restaurants offering alfresco dining – approved or not – and 41 downtown, which is mostly on Greenwich Ave but also in immediate adjacent streets.
She said there have always been breaches, but nothing like post-pandemic.
• Citywide, 75 of 96 restaurants offering outdoor dining are in violation, most with increased seating.
• 21 are dining out even though they have not received approval or even submitted an application.
• 19 of 41 downtown restaurants have violations.
Before the pandemic, restaurants were allowed to have a certain number of seats. They had to go before P&Z and ask for outdoor dining in an area that may include city property but not private parking lots. The maximum seating limit has not increased: indoor seating would decrease based on the number of outdoor seating. This maintained the parking requirement, which is generally one space for every three spaces.
After the pandemic, the city wanted to bring people outside. Under executive orders and internal bills, restaurants could exceed the total number of seats for which they have been approved.
The total number of spaces fell from around 3,000 to just under 4,000, with an increase in parking demand of 291.
Downtown, this translates to approximately 22 more seats per restaurant than originally approved.
Due to the increased number of seats and the fact that the outdoor dining seats are inside the parking spaces, this has contributed to the shortage of parking spaces. And remember that restaurants located in buildings inside the front and rear building lines are exempt from parking requirements to begin with.
(P&Z approves 200+ seat Greek restaurant in downtown Greenwich on August 3, 2022)
As for supporting a parking garage, while there’s no specific plan, DeLuca said the survey indicated about 50% of respondents would be in favor.
Commissioner Dennis Yeskey said this indicates attitudes may have changed in favor of parking.
Mr Yeskey has vigorously defended the outdoor dining nodes, which he described as a boon to the city.
“It seems to me there is a design problem,” Yeskey said.
Yeskey said the commission should study how to improve outdoor dining, not eliminate it.
“I know restaurants. When they bitch about something, I tell them you’ve doubled your restaurant in town and your income has tripled. You have more alcohol and everything else. Don’t tell me about a little pipsy infraction somewhere.
“I don’t want rats and rodents,” he said, adding that the solution was a better application.
The workshop was the start of a conversation and there will be future opportunities for public participation and possible new regulations.
P&Z Outdoor Restoration Workshop Comments: Unsightly, Unnecessary, Unfair
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