Plans for expanded outdoor dining, which was a major success in West Hartford in 2020, are in the process of being finalized for 2021.
By Ronni Newton
The streetscape in West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square is about to undergo a seasonal transformation with the return of outdoor dining corrals – bringing back to the town what many in 2020 described as a vibrant, European ambiance.
While it turned West Hartford into even more of a foodie mecca than ever before – just one of the town’s positive vibes noted in a New York Times article earlier this week – expanded outdoor dining also provided a much-needed boost to restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While indoor dining demand has steadily increased, outdoor seating remains very much popular and a preference for many patrons.
“We’re looking to deploy the barriers on LaSalle Road and in Blue Back Square on May 5,” Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski told We-Ha.com this week.
The contingency that has been impacting the timing is that the town is awaiting completion of a storm drain pipe-lining project underway on LaSalle Road, but she said that should be wrapped up by early May.
The deployment of the barriers on Farmington Avenue will come a week or two later, Gorski said, because the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) is wrapping up a separate project there replacing a water main along the roadway.
Applications for expanded outdoor dining (as well as retail) were distributed earlier this week, and town staff will begin reviewing them as of April 19, with a requirement that all applications receive a response within 10 days.
“Any restaurant or retailer that is in the Center or Blue Back Square that wishes to apply for expansion” can apply, Gorski said. This particular process pertains to businesses that would like permission to use public rights of way like the dining corrals that are installed where there are usually parking spaces, as well as sidewalks or alleyways.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order that expanded outdoor dining in 2020 was recently codified by the state legislature, and through March 2022 gives municipalities additional flexibility to allow use of rights of ways and other public spaces, also reducing the need for significant paperwork such as site surveys or traffic studies when approving applications for permits for outdoor dining or retail operations. It also allows municipalities wishing to permanently expand the availability of outdoor dining and retail activity to expedite permanent changes to their own zoning rules.
The Town of West Hartford had already began taking action to ensure that expanded outdoor dining and retail – which was so successful in 2020 – could continue through Dec. 31, 2021, even if the governor or legislature did not take action. Once the state passed the legislation – which the governor signed during a ceremony at Millwright’s in Simsbury on Wednesday – the town’s ordinance was deemed unnecessary and was withdrawn.
Town Manager Matt Hart said he and staff are working on a permanent zoning amendment which will be proposed for consideration this fall.
“A silver lining of the pandemic is that it allowed us to experiment with new outdoor dining and entertainment options, and I have heard from so many residents about how much they enjoyed the new outdoor experience,” Mayor Shari Cantor said previously, adding that the proposed ordinance gives local businesses the stability they need, while giving the Town Council time to evaluate and implement exciting long term changes for the future.
What will outdoor dining corrals look like this year?
“Some of the areas are a little bit smaller,” Gorski said, the result of several factors.
On the south side of Farmington Avenue, the current parallel parking arrangement will be maintained, and there will continue to be two lanes of traffic flow in an eastbound direction. This modification from last year’s set-up was a recommendation of the town’s engineering staff due to traffic back-ups at the intersection with North and South Main streets that resulted from the lane narrowing.
While Arugula will still have space for roughly 14 seats in a dining corral, the corral in front of bartaco will not be installed this year, Gorski said. The town is working on ways for bartaco to expand its existing patio, she said.
Some other changes she noted are that Song on LaSalle Road didn’t indicate a desire to have expanded space that they had last year. Blue Elephant Trail, on South Main Street, did not have a corral last year, but will have one in 2021 that will accommodate roughly 20 seats.
In Blue Back Square, traffic will remain two-way on Isham Road as well as Memorial Road – a major change from 2020 where both roadways had one-way sections. World of Beer’s dining corral will still utilize parking spaces but won’t extend further into the roadway.
On Isham Road, Vinted will once again have a corral, and barriers enclosing space for roughly 10 seats will be installed for the soon-to-open Place 2 Be. Both will be where parking is currently in place, but will not impede the roadway. Kaliubon Ramen on Isham Road will have some tables located on the sidewalk, but has indicated to the town a preference for designated short-term parking spaces in front rather than dining corral seating.
Assistant Town Engineer Greg Sommer provided the following comparison of expanded outdoor dining capacity in 2021 as compared to 2020.
- 18 restaurants have requested expanded outdoor dining (in corrals) for 2021, up from 16 in 2020.
- 14,575 square feet of space will be used for expanded outdoor dining in 2021. In 2020, there was 19,535 square feet of outdoor seating provided in the corrals.
- 43 parking spaces (net) will be eliminated while dining corrals are in place during 2021. In 2020, a net of 64 parking spaces were lost.
- 460 additional seats will be provided for restaurants in West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square this year. In 2020 there were 595 additional seats.
Gorski said another reason for a smaller footprint for expanded outdoor dining corrals is related to overall restaurant capacity and kitchen capacity. When the expansion was introduced in 2020, restaurant capacity was limited to 50% indoors, and remained limited for the duration of the time the corrals were in place. While 6 feet of distancing between tables is still required, indoor capacity for restaurants is now technically 100%.
According to Gorski, input from the fire marshal, and the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District, has been provided to determine how many outdoor spaces can be accommodated by each restaurant.
In 2020 many of the corrals were decorated with flowers and large potted plants, and outfitted with a variety of furniture, umbrellas, and lighting, allowing restaurateurs artistic expression.
While the spaces were beautiful, this year, the design will be taken up a notch.
Gorski said that she is working with Roxanne Stachelek, executive director of the west Hartford Art League, as well as West Hartford’s Public Relations Specialist Renée McCue and Chuck Coursey of the town’s Arts and Culture Commission on a plan to artistically enhance the barriers. Funding through Sustainable CT is likely, she said.
The goal, Gorski said, will be “to create some beautification of the barriers as well as to achieve some public art.”
Plans are still being finalized, but there will likely be an opportunity for the community to participate in the painting process. The painting of either the barriers themselves or some type of overlay that can be placed over them will happen after they are in place due to the possibility of damage from the large machinery used in the installation process.
Outdoor dining outside of the Center and Blue Back Square
While the Center and Blue Back Square are the only areas of West Hartford where it’s possible to utilize portions of the roadway for outdoor dining corrals, restaurants in other areas throughout town have also embraced outdoor dining and some have also been able to expand with the approval of the property owner.
Those expansions are already able to move forward for this season, Gorski said.
In 2020, establishments such as Rockledge Grille, Frida, and Blue Plate Kitchen were among those that had expanded outdoor dining onto private property, as did Max Burger on the southern portion of LaSalle Road.
There is no charge to apply for a permit for expanding outdoor dining. The application is attached as a PDF below.
“This past year has been incredibly difficult for everyone and especially for the restaurant and retail industries. We understand that and want to do everything we can to continue to support your business in any way we can,” Associate Planner Brian Pudlick said in an email to businesses.
Applicants will receive a response within 10 days. Last year, on average, it took 2.8 days to respond to the applications, Gorski said, and the goal will be to respond quickly again this week.
Pudlick noted that an inspection will be required before opening to customers.
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