Parking availability was a major concern Wednesday when a Keene City Council committee considered a downtown restaurant’s request to use on-street parking spaces for additional outdoor seating.
Machina Kitchen and ArtBar, just off Central Square, has proposed using three parallel-parking spaces in front of its building to construct what is known as a parklet — a structure generally used to create seating areas or green spaces along streets. But during Wednesday night’s meeting of the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee, several people raised concerns about how parklets could exacerbate existing parking issues.
“Parking is in very short supply,” Councilor Mitch Greenwald said. “Particularly [in] Central Square.”
Greenwald noted that there are businesses on the second and third floors of downtown buildings, as well as apartments, all of which require access to parking. He added that if the city allows parklets for restaurants, it would also have to allow them for other sorts of businesses, too.
Greenwald owns a number of downtown properties and also noted that he has a conflict of interest as the building manager for the block on the north side of Central Square, just around the corner from Machina. Due to this conflict of interest, he will not take any votes related to the request.
The committee ultimately tabled Machina’s proposal in order to give city staff time to draft an amendment to the city code dealing with requests to use city property. The amendment would contain guidelines about when and where parklets can be erected.
The restaurant hopes to build a wooden deck that would be level with the curb and have a 4-foot fence around it, Machina co-owner Danya Landis said last month. It would hold nine tables: five six-person tables and four four-person tables. Landis said the parklet would be removed at the end of the outdoor dining season and reconstructed each year.
Due to the pandemic, the city has been more flexible with where restaurants can place outdoor dining areas. Because of this, the restaurant already has a license to block off those three parking spaces for outdoor seating, which will expire after this season.
Machina’s parklet request, made last month, is the first and only such request the city has received. And with no standard for licensing these structures, city staff developed a set of criteria for where parklets could be permitted, according to Department of Public Works Director Kürt Blomquist. Parking availability was taken into consideration, he said.
Blomquist said the city identified four parts of downtown — including where Machina is located — with sidewalks that are too narrow to properly accommodate a patio and where the on-street parking consists of parallel spaces rather than diagonal ones. Using parallel spaces for parklets is preferable, he explained, because diagonal spaces allow for more vehicles to park in one area.
“We want to minimize the loss of parking,” he said. “And how we looked at that ... a parallel parking space, for example, is 18 foot along the curb line. A 60-degree-angle space, which is most of ours in the downtown area, [is] approximately 10 foot in width. So basically, for every parallel space, there’s two angle spaces.”
Any parklets would be allowed only from April 15 to Nov. 15 each year, he said.
The PLD Committee considered Wednesday whether it would be appropriate to codify the staff-developed standards as an ordinance. But Councilor Philip Jones raised concerns that doing so would invite more people to seek licenses for building parklets.
Residents of Keene and other nearby communities who participated in the Zoom meeting were divided on Machina’s request. Georgia Cassimatis, a Gilsum resident who owns 17ROX — a downtown Keene arts venue that rents affordable studio space to local artists — said she’s never had a problem with parking downtown and that parklets are just the sort of thing the area needs to attract a younger crowd.
Keene resident Jaclyn Headings spoke up for Machina in particular, saying they’ve been good stewards of their building and give a lot back to the community. But more generally, she said that as the community emerges from the pandemic, downtown businesses need as much help as they can get.
“We are coming out of COVID, our downtown businesses very much need our peak spring, summer, early fall seasons to attract not only residents in the area, but the Monadnock Region [and] out of state,” she said. “We really need that for our economy.”
Meanwhile, Dorrie Masten, a Swanzey resident who owns property downtown as well as The Pour House restaurant, echoed the concerns about the lack of parking and also said it could be a safety issue if emergency responders needed to park close to the building. She asked that a traffic and a safety study be done before the city makes a determination.
Landis thanked city officials for taking the time to discuss how to move forward with a parklet plan for downtown. She said she understands the concerns, but that parklets would help other businesses in town as well.
“I know that looking outside of the box is not always easy,” she said. “And I know that bringing in new ideas is not always easy. I think this is something that’s going to be incredibly important for the vitality of our business.”