Machina Kitchen & ArtBar is seeking permission from the city of Keene to build a seasonal patio in front of its Court Street business, on top of three parallel parking spaces.
In a letter to Mayor George Hansel and the City Council, the popular downtown restaurant requested a long-term permit to construct a parklet — a patio that extends from the sidewalk and is often used for outdoor seating or green space — and to serve alcohol there. The parklet would allow for expanded outdoor dining space, something co-owner Danya Landis said has been vitally important during COVID-19.
“We believe that, as the restrictions loosen, people are still going to be in favor of outdoor dining, so it’s imperative to our business’s health that this is something that we offer,” she said during a meeting of the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee on Wednesday. “But here’s the catch ... our sidewalk is narrow and has trees and poles that make it challenging for us to put tables up against our building without blocking public walking spaces.”
In May, restaurants were permitted to begin serving customers outdoors after being forced to close for in-person dining in March. But in Keene, some restaurants, including Machina, were not eligible to set up a patio due to the size and layout of their buildings.
However, the restaurant was able to secure a temporary permit after the city allowed more flexibility in where patio seating could be placed.
Landis said that with the restaurant’s current setup, in which tables are pushed up against the curb, the parallel parking spaces next to the tables must remain empty because car doors would hit the tables when opened. She said the parklet would enable the restaurant to make use of those parking spaces, which are sitting empty anyway.
Landis said the restaurant plans to construct a wooden deck that would be level with the curb and have a 4-foot fence around it. It would hold nine tables: five six-person tables and four four-person tables, according to the letter. Landis said the structure would be removed at the end of the outdoor dining season and reconstructed each year.
The restaurant’s current temporary permit allows the same number of tables, according to the letter. Under the proposal, most of the tables would be located on the parklet, but some could be staggered over the sidewalk, Landis told The Sentinel Sunday.
Keene Department of Public Works Director Kürt Blomquist said during the committee meeting that other downtown restaurants owners have expressed interest in parklets as well, but Machina is the first to initiate the process of getting one approved.
He asked that the request be tabled to allow staff to review several issues, including safety concerns related to the proximity of patrons to passing traffic. The committee voted unanimously to do so.
City Manager Elizabeth Dragon expressed support for the parklet concept but agreed that it needs to be fine-tuned before moving forward.
“I am very excited about this,” she said during the meeting. “It is a new concept; it will take us a little bit of work to figure it all out so that we can make sure that they are able to operate and that people are safe.”
Dragon said that while Machina has a temporary permit this year, a permanent solution will be needed once the state of emergency ends.
Some councilors on the committee were enthusiastic about the use of parklets, saying they could help businesses overcome the challenges of the pandemic.
“I look forward to seeing these kinds of things happen in our little city to help our small businesses get back on the road,” said Councilor Gladys Johnsen. “I look forward to this coming up for a vote next time, and I certainly support it.”
Councilor Mitch Greenwald, who owns a real-estate business on Main Street, said he is the property manager for the building block on the north side of Central Square — just around the corner from Machina — and the owner, Camille Helminski, has some concerns about the request.
Reached Sunday, Greenwald pointed to a shortage of parking downtown and said that taking those spots away would impact the upstairs tenants at the Central Square property, as well people who patronize the businesses on the first floor.
Greenwald — who said he won’t vote on the matter when it’s brought back due to his conflict of interest — said the parklet was a nice idea, but worried that it would become a trend the city can’t accommodate.
“How do you say no to Yahso or Timoleon’s when you say yes to Machina?” he asked.