Business Government

West Hartford Center Serves as Backdrop for Signing of Outdoor Dining Extension

Town and state officials and West Hartford restaurateurs gather as Gov. Ned Lamont signs a bill Wednesday extending outdoor dining through April 30, 2023. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation Wednesday extending relaxed rules for outdoor dining through April 30, 2023.

Chef Christiane Gehami, owner of Arugula on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center, said that expanded outdoor dining saved her restaurant. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford’s expanded outdoor dining has been served up as a shining example, a silver lining of the pandemic, a saving grace for local restaurateurs, and Gov. Ned Lamont touted the success of his initial executive order – which was codified in 2021 – as he gathered in the Center on Wednesday morning with state and local officials to sign House Bill 5271, expanding the streamlining of outdoor dining statewide for another 13 months.

“‘Outdoor dining’ … two simple words that literally saved not only Arugula but so many restaurants that otherwise would not have been able to make it,” Chef Christiane Gehami, owner of Arugula Bistro, told the crowd on the sidewalk next to bartaco on Farmington Avenue.

Most restaurants have patios, and they are money makers, but until outdoor dining was expanded, Arugula, which is located at 953 Farmington Ave. in West Hartford Center, didn’t have that luxury, Gehami said. “I have a tiny bistro, I’m right on the street, and for years never had this luxury or opportunity. COVID, as horrifying as it was, and probably still is, brought about much-needed change.”

She credited the hard work of Connecticut Restaurant Association President and CEO Scott Dolch, the governor,  Mayor Shari Cantor, as well as the legislators, for expanding outdoor dining and providing what has been a lifeline not just for her, but for so many restaurants.

“Thanks to their efforts I now have a gorgeous little outdoor street patio that I cherish dearly, something that would never have come about without the help and effort of this great legislation,” said Gehami. “It’s still a struggle, it probably will be for a long time, but there is light.”

House Bill 5271, “An Act Concerning The Provision Of Outdoor Food and Beverage Services and Outdoor Displays of Goods,” was approved by the House on March 16, by a vote of 121-21, the Senate unanimously passed the measure last week, extending the state’s expanded outdoor dining that would have expired on March 31, 2022 until April 30, 2023.

The bill had the support of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, as well as the Connecticut Council of Small Towns and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

The measure reduces the red tape that restaurants must face to obtain permits to use not just patios, but also parking lots, sidewalks, and other public rights of way – for additional seating. In West Hartford alone, more than 60 restaurants had outdoor dining last summer.

The bill requires municipalities to allow outdoor dining as an accessory use “as of right,” allows for outdoor dining to extend onto public pathways and parking areas subject to certain requirements, and while it does not require municipalities to take action after April 2023, any local ordinances that pertain to outdoor dining must be modified to conform to the Act.

West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor speaks at a press conference Wednesday that preceded Gov. Ned Lamont’s signing of a bill extending expanded outdoor dining. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

While Wednesday morning’s brisk winds and temperatures in the 30s wouldn’t make many people excited about outdoor dining, “This is a really, really warm idea, and a really, really warm reason to be here today to celebrate spring and our fabulous restaurants that are such a treasure to each and every community,” Cantor said, thanking the governor for his leadership and commitment.

West Hartford added 1,500 outdoor seats last year, 1,000 of those in the Center, and the town is looking forward to the return of the outdoor dining season.

“We really appreciate the state’s leadership in extending this, but West Hartford is moving forward to codify permanently outdoor dining,” Cantor said.

Connecticut Restaurant Association President and CEO Scott Dolch at a press conference in West Hartford Wednesday morning. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“There’s 8,000 of those stories in our state that Chris [Gehami] has and shared today about our industry and how hard it has been the last two years,” Dolch said. Although no one was dining outdoors Wednesday with temperatures in the mid-30s, he said, “This is a great day. This is a way to see the future and what this means.”

Outdoor dining has been key to survival of the industry, and while the  industry that remains challenged by staffing shortages, supply issues, and rising prices, this will help.

“This isn’t just a West Hartford bill, this is about our whole state, our whole industry,” Dolch said. “Mayor Cantor has been a beacon,” he added, using American Rescue Plan Act funds to make infrastructure improvements to help outdoor dining and retail for years to come.

Gov. Ned Lamont signs a bill in West Hartford Center, extending expanded outdoor dining through April 30, 2023. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

After restaurant dining was shut down in the early days of the pandemic, on May 20, 2020 outdoor dining returned, Lamont said.

“If there was a silver lining to COVID, I think outdoor dining was a big piece of that,” said Lamont. “I think a lot of folks discovered that our towns were alive, and vibrant, and exciting, and having people sitting outside at those cafes, like Paris or something, was just remarkable.

“We sat outside shivering, and we sat outside basking, and I think we saw how vibrant West Hartford is and another 168 towns are, and I think that was part of people rediscovering what makes Connecticut special.”

Legislators who attended Wednesday’s bill signing, from West Hartford and other parts of the state, also praised the bill.

State Sen. Derek Slap. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“This bill is government at its best – nimble, fast, bipartisan, and in collaboration with all the stakeholders who need to be involved with this,” said state Sen. Derek Slap of West Hartford.

“A few weeks from now this street, and LaSalle, will be hopping,” Slap said. Outdoor dining is great for families, for job creation, and the vibrancy even helps keep younger people in state.

“Outdoor dining and the ability to have our restaurants and retail outside has been really critical during this pandemic. … Outdoor dining is fun, it is good for the economy, and it’s good for our neighbors,” said Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey of Fairfield, House chair of the Planning and Development Committee.

State Sen. Steve Casano, Senate Chair of the Planning and Development Committee, noted that hundreds of restaurants no longer exist because of COVID, and restaurants continue to need support. “This is a great effort by the legislature, by all of us regardless of party for what is best for Connecticut.”

“Our main streets, our local restaurants, our local retail shops are struggling under the impact of COVID and also a changing demographic pattern,” Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield said. “This bill pays special attention to the collaboration between our municipal leaders.”

Rep. Tammy Exum of West Hartford said she is looking forward to warmer days ahead. “I’m so fortunate to live in and represent this community … it really comes to life and is quite vibrant, and has been a silver lining.”

Gov. Ned Lamont, Mayor Shari Cantor, state legislators, and representatives of the restaurant industry in West Hartford on March 30, 2022 for the signing of a bill expanding outdoor dining. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford outdoor dining 2022 plans in the works

The West Hartford Town Council was planning to hold a public hearing and vote on a new ordinance on April 12, that the Community Planning and Economic Development Committee has been working on, combining the town’s three existing ordinances related to outdoor dining, and making it an “as of right” accessory use, in compliance with the Act, and subject to administrative approval rather than automatically requiring a hearing. There’s a bit less urgency now, Cantor said, and the vote will be pushed off until May but will still be a “signal to our fabulous restaurants owners that we are committed to outdoor dining.”

After the success of outdoor dining in 2020, West Hartford officials began considering an ordinance change in advance of the 2021 season, but a bill passed by the legislature in March 2021, which codified the governor’s previous executive order, allowed for expanded outdoor dining through March 31, 2022. That measure initially made updating the town’s zoning unnecessary until this year, and now will not be needed until May 2023.

Outdoor dining on patios – which had become nearly ubiquitous in West Hartford over the past two decades – continues to be a valuable resource for restaurants that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. But as Gehami, and the other restaurant owners who gathered in the Center Wednesday morning attested, expanding the opportunities for restaurants to utilize sidewalks and other areas has been a saving grace that has likely kept many afloat over the past two years.

Outdoor dining on LaSalle Road in 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

During the spring, summer, and fall of 2020 and then again in 2021, outdoor dining exploded in West Hartford – with “gardens of eating” blooming and flourishing not only in the Center, where the barriers were transformed into public art last year – but other parts of town as well, and the town gaining a reputation as an outdoor dining “mecca.” The prevalence of outdoor dining has helped make West Hartford a destination, and increased foot traffic for other businesses as well.

Expanded outdoor dining in the Center and Blue Back Square is a collaboration and partnership between the town government – including the Engineering Division and Public Works – the business community, and the arts.

ArtBarriers will return for 2022, as the dining corrals in West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square become not just safety measures but public art. The West Hartford Art League has issued a call to artists, with proposals due by April 6 (details can be found here).

“The chance to re-do them every year is good for the artists and good for the town,” said Roxanne Stachelek, executive director of the West Hartford Art League. “We’re looking forward to doing it again.”

Details are still being finalized for the layout of the corrals, but barriers will be deployed by early May, and community paint days for the ArtBarrier murals will be held on May 15 and May 22.

ARPA funds will provide much of the support for the 2022 ArtBarriers program.

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