West Hartford’s Department of Public Works will begin removing the outdoor dining corrals on Nov. 16, but the town is working with restaurants to provide other options for expanded capacity.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Center already had a reputation as a foodie destination, but since June the outdoor dining corrals that have lined LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue, as well Isham and Memorial roads in Blue Back Square, have created a new type of dining mecca, a vibrant, European ambiance in the town that also provided a much-needed boost to restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic by proving them with more than 750 additional seats.
With winter approaching, however, the outdoor dining corrals will be removed by the Department of Public Works in order to accommodate snow removal in the Center and Blue Back Square. According to the town, the removal process is scheduled to begin at 5 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 16, and weather-permitting should be completed by Nov. 17.
The outdoor dining season has been extended as long as possible. The weekend of Nov. 6-8 was unseasonably warm, and corrals and patios were packed throughout the day and, with the aid of an army of propane heaters, restaurants remained busy into the night, until the newly-mandated closing time of 10 p.m.
Outdoor dining was permitted to resume in Connecticut as of May 20, but it was really an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont – that gave municipalities permission to relax some zoning regulations and permitting in order to expand and promote outdoor dining and retail, including use of public rights of way and roadways – which temporarily changed the town’s landscape and traffic and parking patterns.
Outdoor dining has already been popular in West Hartford, since the Town Council passed an ordinance in March 2006 which set the framework for outdoor dining to be permitted at restaurants throughout town. Patio and sidewalk dining have become a fixture of the warm weather months, but a somewhat lengthy approval process, including in many cases a public hearing or even a vote by the Town Council, could be required depending on the location of the property and the nature of the request.
With the governor’s executive order greatly simplifying the process and allowing expansion into public rights of ways including roads, and particularly with the town’s installation of barriers to create the corrals, outdoor dining was a godsend for many restaurants.
Many of the corrals were decorated with flowers and large potted plants, and outfitted with a variety of furniture and umbrellas, allowing restaurateurs artistic expression.
Throughout town, outdoor dining attracted a record number of patrons this year.
“It’s been such a boost over the summer,” said Billy Grant, owner of Restaurant Bricco on LaSalle Road. He was able to take advantage of a large dining corral that often saw a waiting list on weekends.
“I’m hoping that people feel safe when they come inside,” he said. “I also hope take-out will pick up. It’s a very difficult time for all of the restaurants, and the staffs as well.”
With coronavirus cases spiking, as of Nov. 6, Connecticut rolled back from Phase 3 COVID-19 guidelines to Phase 2.1, cutting maximum restaurant capacity from 75% to 50%, limiting the number of people in a group to eight, and requiring last call at 9:30 p.m. for in-person dining and the closing of dining rooms (and corrals) by 10 p.m. daily.
“West Hartford is lucky and gratefulto have so many wonderful restaurants. The extended outdoor dining has been a great success, appreciated by the owners and thoroughly enjoyed by patrons,” Mayor Shari Cantor told We-Ha.com.
“Now that we are entering this new phase of colder weather, each establishment has unique challenges and opportunities. We are working to do what we can to allow expandedcapacity safely and extended areas for diners,” she said.
The governor’s executive order allowing for the waiver of certain zoning restrictions was just extended within the past week, but knowing that the dining corrals needed to come down for the winter, town officials were already working on creative ways to assist restaurants in expanding their capacity.
“The executive orders have given us more flexibility,” West Hartford Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski said. “It allows for us to consider additional options,” she said.
“The state has providing us, as the municipality, the ability to expand outdoor dining areas into space that otherwise would not be allowed,” West Hartford Zoning Enforcement Officer Brian Pudlik said, and to allow use of that expanded space year round.
Even when outdoor dining becomes subject to indoor capacity limits because it’s enclosed, it still falls within the streamlined approval process afforded by the executive orders, and enclosed structures can be placed on sidewalks or in parking areas.
While many restaurants were finding it difficult to maximize indoor capacity due to the need to maintain 6 feet of separation or use non-porous barriers, with indoor capacity now capped at 50% rather than 75%, however, there may not be as much demand for expansion areas.
Tents with more than two sides down are classified as indoor dining, as are igloos and greenhouses – structures for which the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development has been changing its guidance. DECD has agreed to consider those structures on an individual basis if they meet strict airflow requirements.
According to Pudlik, there have not yet been any applications for either greenhouses or igloos in West Hartford.
One restaurant, Max’s Oyster Bar on Farmington Avenue, has applied to have four enclosed tents on the sidewalk in front, Pudlik said Tuesday, and that application is currently under review.
Pudlik also said the town will continue working with restaurants – particularly smaller establishments – that are finding it difficult to reach 50% indoor capacity due to their layout. He cited Arugula, which made extensive use of a beautiful outdoor space in a corral throughout the summer but doesn’t have room for outdoor dining on the sidewalk and also lacks access to a usable alleyway or parking area.
“We are continuing to explore options for restaurants that are challenged,” Pudlik said.
Without the dining corrals, restaurants along LaSalle Road could apply to use rear parking areas for additional capacity, provided the property owners allow it.
Grant said now that his corral will be removed, he is looking into the possibility of creating additional capacity in other public areas adjacent to Bricco. “We are looking at every avenue we can,” he said.
“We had floated ideas out there for using the Brace Road parking lot,” Pudlik said, but that wasn’t a good option for most restaurants due to the need to access the areas through the kitchen. He said that Treva, however, which already has a rear patio, could apply to enclose that if otherwise unable to reach 50% indoors.
And if tents are used, Pudlik said, they can also serve as pop-up outdoor capacity on nice days if at least two of the flaps are lifted.
Over the summer, Pudlik said the following establishments that did not previously have outdoor dining approved received permission under the executive order’s provisions: Arethusa, Arugula, Ben & Jerry’s, Bruegger’s Bagels, Café Sofia, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Donut Crazy, Dunkin Donuts, Flora, Freshii, Harry’s Pizza, Hartford Baking Co., Mecha, Milkcraft, Pokemoto, Robeks Juice, Sally & Bobs, Savoy Pizzeria, Song Restaurant, Starbucks, Sweet Frog, and Tea Break.
Restaurants outside the Center and Blue Back Square also took advantage of the executive order regarding expanded outdoor dining, Pudlik said, including Frida, Rockledge Grille, Butterfly, and Red Robin. They are eligible to apply for permission to enclose those spaces, he said.
A copy of the town’s application is included below as a PDF.
“We want to remind our community that our restaurants have been there for us and they really need our support now,” said Cantor. “We are committed to being as creative and collaborative as we can to support our treasured businesses.”
Traffic flow and parking changes
Once the barriers creating the dining corrals are removed, Farmington Avenue, Isham Road, and Memorial Road will be restored to their original traffic patterns and the pavement markings will be repainted. Farmington Avenue will revert to parallel parking.
LaSalle Road, however, will remain one-way northbound, but with a few key changes.
The head-out angled parking on LaSalle Road will remain in place, and will be expanded to include the block from Ellsworth to Arapahoe roads.
Head-out angled parking – requiring the motorist to back into the space – gives the driver a greater field of vision when leaving. Head-out angled parking is used in 32 major cities, and studies indicated that it is safer, easier, and more accommodating for unloading, town officials said.
In addition, a bike lane will be added on each side of LaSalle Road.
There will continue to be 33 free, 15 to 30-minute free parking spaces available for curbside pick-up of take-out orders on LaSalle Road, South Main Street, Farmington Avenue, Memorial Road, and Isham Road, the town said. With the removal of the corrals, some of the locations will change, and an updated map can be found as a PDF below.
Parking lot kiosks in the Brace Road and Farmington Avenue lots will continue to allow 30-minute free parking. “Shoppers, diners, clients, and employees are asked to use the municipal lots and parking garages when their stay is longer than 30 minutes,” the town said in an announcement of the updated plans.
While this summer’s changes to dining and traffic patterns were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the town will be considering moves to replicate the dining corrals next year as well. Without an executive order allowing for the waiver of zoning provisions, however, it will require action by the Town Council to officially change zoning requirements.
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