A compromise to keep COVID-era outdoor dining in Manchester was a hot topic at Monday’s Board of Selectmen meeting. In the end, the BOS approved the continuation of outdoor dining at all restaurants until July 11, and a scaled back version of the popular practice through August 15.
The policy to allow restaurants to use cordoned off, pre-approved street parking spots for outdoor dining was a temporary measure to allow restaurants to continue viability during COVID-distancing safety requirements. Massachusetts signed the temporary measure in Spring, 2020. The new way of dining saved local eateries, and customers have come to love the practice. Retailers, however, have complained that reduced parking has reduced their own viability, all while they struggle with COVID restrictions themselves.
But Manchester brings a history rife with downtown parking issues. In 2019, the state’s Complete Streets grant program provided monies to build pedestrian-safe walkways and crosswalks. The prospect of the installations spooked retailers, who said moving or reducing parking hurt them. Residents complained at the series of forums set up by the town. So did retailers, who said their customers want parking that is convenient. BOS Chairman Eli Boling, called it a “detailed and painful memory.”
On Monday most attendees spoke in favor of outdoor dining. They said it brings vibrancy and life to downtown, and that can only help retailers. (“They want to shop before they eat,” said one). Others said outdoor dining accommodates families with young children who haven’t yet been vaccinated. Still others said whatever happened before COVID, while important and legitimate, needs to be looked at in a different light. Things have changed.
Addressing parking, supporters of outdoor dining brought up the town's current plans to connect the large public parking lot behind Town Hall directly to downtown via a walking path from the water sewer treatment plant (directly between the Masonic Hall and the Amaral Bailey Post 113 Legion Hall) to the Cape Ann Savings Bank building on Beach Street. That path will be operational by July, said Manchester Town Administrator Greg Federspiel. But, he said, while the new path will be a solution for the downtown parking squeeze, it will take a while for the public to become familiar, and comfortable, with using it.
In the end, the board approved a limited form of sidewalk dining, where restaurants lose street parking for dining but can set up outdoor tables on the sidewalk, as long as a three-foot space is kept for pedestrian passage. Cala’s and Allie’s are likely to adopt this new design. Antique Table, The Mooring and Black Arrow will decide and submit plans to the town if they wish to pursue it. The BOS will meet monthly to revisit the new temporary policy.