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Taking the downtown dining experience into the streets

New London — The city is allowing restaurants to take the concept of sidewalk dining a step further — off the curb and into the street.

A new ordinance allows owners of commercial businesses — not just restaurants — the ability to use abutting on-street parking spaces for dining or other activities. The city’s Parking Authority will take the lead in granting licenses for what is envisioned to be raised platforms separated from traffic by some type of barrier.

Dev's on State at 312 State St., across from the Garde Arts Center, is acting as the pilot location for the concept. A structure spanning two parking spaces was under construction on Thursday. It has a deck-style railing facing the road, built-in flower planters and umbrellas covering the dining area. Numerous passersby slowed to catch a glimpse of the progress.  

Parking Director Carey Redd said these “parklets” are being used in many major cities and can be an economic driver while providing a space for artistic expression and another reason for people to visit the city. He's hopeful the idea will catch on.

New Haven, Hartford, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Maine, are just a few of the cities that allow parklets, which the National Association of City Transportation Officials describes as “public seating platforms that convert curbside parking spaces into vibrant community spaces.” They also are known as street seats or curbside seating. The concept started in San Francisco more than a decade ago and Redd said there is even an annual "PARK(ing) Day" held every September that encourages community members to convert metered parking spaces into such parklets.

Word of the ordinance has spread quickly and Redd said he already is fielding calls from interested business owners. Costs for the license still are being worked out. The $8-per-day loss in parking meter revenue per parking space will be a factor.

Redd acknowledged that the city has its parking challenges but thinks for business owners the idea of generating more foot traffic outweighs the cost of losing a few parking spaces.

“By the time we come out of summer, I’ll probably be here asking to expand the program to areas we normally would not see similar things,” Redd told the City Council on Monday.

Safety was one of the concerns raised by councilors when the ordinance came to the council for a vote.

“I had no problem in the past supporting people sitting on the sidewalks. Now we’re putting them in parking spots in the road?” was Councilor John Satti’s initial reaction. “We’re so limited in parking as it is.”

Satti ultimately voted in favor of the ordinance. The council’s vote was unanimous.

“Conceptually, it’s a nice idea, something new and exciting for our downtown and our business folks,” Satti said.

Councilor Efrain Dominguez agreed and said the concept was “Something new. Something exciting.” Dominguez was curious about how many parklets would be allowed, a question for which there was no clear answer.

Council President Don Venditto said on Monday he had traveled to Austin, Texas, recently and got a firsthand glimpse at the on-street dining. “These places were booming every single day,” he said. “It’s in the wheelhouse of the residents we’re trying to attract. My concerns are about safety.”

Venditto and other councilors questioned what type of barriers would be used.

“The sufficiency of the barrier shall be determined by a representative from the City’s Office of Development and Planning in its sole discretion,” the new ordinance reads.

All applicants for a license must provide $1 million insurance policy, indemnify and hold the city harmless for all claims, costs and damages associated with an accident. All the tables, chairs and personal property are to be removed from the area at least 12 hours prior to any major storm. No music is allowed.

New London Main Street Director Kristin Havrilla Clarke said the concept sounded fun and interesting, like a pop-up outdoor space. She said the overall concept is another effort to bring people into the downtown. “I like the idea. I’m excited to see how it goes,” she said.

While aware that parking can be an issue, Clarke said the city does have the advantage of a centrally located surface lot and parking garage.

“It’s a good thing to have that problem," she said of parking challenges. "It means people are here and downtown is in demand. I hope that it is successful.”

g.smith@theday.com

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