As the reality of life with a deadly and extremely contagious viral outbreak set in last year, one of the key questions became “How do we start to resume normal activities?”
Among those activities was dining out, an economic jolt as well as a morale booster.
The answer, at least when weather permitted it, was literally dining out — as in, outdoors. Restaurants quickly realized the only way to go beyond takeout was to have outdoor seating. And to its credit, the city helped out, approving special licenses and waivers to accommodate outdoor seating areas for downtown eateries — whether they be in parking lots, on the sidewalk, or even in mostly unused on-street parking spaces.
Those were emergency arrangements, to be sure, but necessary ones. And when colder temperatures set in and the pandemic hadn’t abated, it was another hit for many local establishments that were under orders from the state to limit indoor seating. Getting through winter has, for some, been a struggle.
Though the governor has now dropped the state restrictions on indoor seating — perhaps somewhat prematurely — and better weather has arrived, having a robust outdoor dining area remains a plus for restaurants. Many diners will continue to be wary of eating indoors until the virus is really under control.
We saw last summer that extending dining outdoors was easier for some downtown restaurants than others. Some Keene mainstays have had outdoor seating for years, and have plenty of space to work with. Others, not so much. Machina Kitchen & ArtBar on Court Street, one of the newer establishments downtown, hadn’t previously offered outdoor seating because, for starters, there wasn’t any room. The sidewalk along Court Street isn’t as wide as on Central Square and along Main, and it’s lined with trees and poles in front of the restaurant.
But the city did help out, allowing a section of the sidewalk to be set aside for seating. It wasn’t ideal, but everyone worked together and it largely succeeded.
Now, Machina co-owner Danya Landis has applied for city permission to put in place a new plan: an outdoor patio, or “parklet,” built on decking in the three parking spaces along Court Street in front of the building. It would allow the sidewalk to remain mostly clear while adding to the number of tables available outside (the permit would be for nine tables, the same number as the restaurant’s previous temporary license, but Machina never had that many last summer).
City Manager Elizabeth Dragon has expressed support for the idea, and Public Works Director Kurt Blomquist said other eateries have also raised the idea. It seems like something that ought to be doable.
There is one catch, however. Those parking spaces aren’t just for Machina patrons. Although Landis said they were largely unused last summer because of the proximity of the tables Machina did set up, City Councilor Mitch Greenwald, who manages the properties along the north side of Central Square, said losing that parking could be a hit for businesses in his buildings.
Note that during the height of the pandemic last year, the city did set aside parking spaces for specific businesses to use for takeout eating and retail pickup service. But it’s expected there will be a lot more activity downtown this summer, as more people are vaccinated and others seem willing to ignore social distancing.
It’s true because of the narrower sidewalk, plus the trees and poles, Machina was at a disadvantage in setting up outside dining, compared to, say, Fritz’s, Luca’s or The Stage. One possible solution might to be approach the United Church of Christ, which owns the small park and adjoining land abutting Machina’s north side. Perhaps a part of that parcel could be carved out for seating, off the sidewalk and street entirely.
Absent that, the city will have to decide whether the loss of those specific parking spots is more of a detriment to other businesses than it is a benefit to Machina, and if not, whether it will charge to rent the spaces to the restaurant. Also, keeping in mind Blomquist’s note that other restaurants are considering similar requests, what type of precedent does the city want to set?
It’d be nice if it works out. Even with the worst of the pandemic hopefully past, we suspect there will still be less traffic downtown this summer than in normal times. And though it’d be convenient for the council to be able to set a policy and be done with it, the city may have to take each parklet proposal as it comes.