SOMERVILLE, NJ - Selected Somerville restaurants will be able to expand their outdoor dining areas on to Main Street by installing "parklets" - raised platforms built even with the curb and extending into parking spaces - according to a design approved by the state Department of Transportation.

This is the third iteration of a plan first submitted to the NJDOT last month by the Borough Council and the Downtown Somerville Alliance. The NJDOT has jurisdiction over Main Street because it is officially designated as a state highway - Route 28. The first two proposals were rejected by Diane Guitierrez-Scacetti, commissioner of the NJDOT.

The Borough Council responded to the NJDOT in a July 17 letter outlining its plan to implement a pilot program.

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"Parklets" have proven successful in other New Jersey towns, including Princeton, Summit, Montclair, and Jersey City, according to Kevin Sluka, borough administrator. Restaurants throughout New Jersey have expanded their footprint outdoors in response to executive orders from Gov. Phil Murphy that prohibit indoor dining and require social distancing to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The first proposal was to shut down Route 28 from Grove Street to Doughty Avenue on the weekends, detouring Main Street traffic to either High Street or Veterans' Memorial Drive to create a pedestrian mall for shoppers and expanded seating for patrons of the restaurants in the downtown district; the second proposal reduced the requested shutdown to Saturdays only, 10 a.m.-10 p,m,

Despite a long-standing precedent that has allowed Somerville to shut down Main Street for firemen parades, the St. Patrick's Day parade, seasonal street fairs, the Memorial Day weekend Tour of Somerville bicycle races and the Central New Jersey Jazz Festival in September - the NJDOT pushed back on the pedestrian mall concept because it did not want to invite similar proposals from towns unable to provide adequate and safe alternatives, according to state Sen. Kip Bateman, who invited Guitierrez-Scacetti to visit Somerville for a first-hand look.

Bateman, whose Warren Street office is a two-minute walk to many of the downtown restaurants, has met with the commissioner several times the past month, and expressed confidence the "parklet" alternative is a good one

"I think that this is a great first step, I'm glad they made the decision to go with a pilot program" Bateman said. "The commissioner has been very receptive and understands our concerns but also has to be careful not to create a precedent. Closing roadways is not conducive to every city; let's see what happens. We can revisit the issue with the commissioner and see if we can go further," he added.

"We'll continue to work with the commissioner and the Borough Council of Somerville to do everything we can to help the restaurants," Bateman said. "Any relief we can provide is a good thing."

Bateman said the commissioner had some concerns with ease of movement for pedestrians using the sidewalks outside the restaurants.

"The way some of them are set up right now, it's a little tight," Bateman said.

Natalie Pineiro, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance merchants' group said those restaurants that have expanded their dining area on to the street have been cognizant and considerate of pedestrian traffic, but that there could be issues with cyclists, wheelchairs, scooters, carriages and strollers.

First and foremost, Pineiro said, the borough must adhere to standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"We want to reserve our sidewalk space as much as we can and stay ADA compliant and make sure that people aren't walking in the street; there's traffic,,buses, trucks - not a pleasant experience to be walking pretty much side- by-side with these things," Pineiro said. . . 

"Parklets" will allow restaurants to expand in to the curb areas - which will be designed with safety in mind, while enhancing the al fresco experience, according to Pineiro. Moving tables on to the platforms will open up sidewalk space for pedestrians.

Walls, barriers or barricades will be an integral part of the "parklets" to separate the area from street traffic, according to Pineiro, with large potted plants included in the designs.

The DSA is talking with restaurant owners about installing the "parklets," but there are concerns that giving up the parking space(s) in front of their establishments might negate any gains of additional dining tables. For some, there would be no net gain for dining, Pineiro said.

The final decision will be made by each individual restaurant owner, according to Pineiro.

The pilot program is targeting areas that are "pressed for sidewalk space," according to Pineiro. She listed Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro; Savor Restaurant; Picasso's, Alfonso's and Central Pizzeria.

"We have to speak with the business owners and see whether they are willing," she said. "Our goal this week is to finalize plans with the business owners and see where we will put them, then we will go to a contractor and start building out."

The "parklets" should be installed by the end of next week, according to Pineiro.

"We want to help our restaurants, but we have to make sure we are prioritizing safety as well," she said.

The following is the letter sent to the NJDOT commissioner by Sluka:

Dear Commissioner:

It was brought to our attention by Senator Bateman that you have reviewed our request to close a portion of Route 28 on Saturdays. It is our understanding that your agency would like the Borough of Somerville to utilize the public street parking to accommodate pedestrians.

We thank you for the opportunity to help our restaurants expand their footprint and will be moving forward with re-purposing the on-street parking to accommodate expanded pedestrian access on our sidewalks by installing temporary parklets.

The parklets will be developed using the “Reclaiming the Right of Way” toolkit creating by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and will incorporate best practices for construction, safety and maintenance as demonstrated by other New Jersey municipalities such as Princeton, Summit, Montclair, and Jersey City.

The parklets, will be simple curbside seating platforms and will feature the following safety features: Parklets will be located away from corners Parklets will be placed in areas where the speed limit is posted at 25 MPH or less Parklets will not extend more than 6 feet from the curb in areas where there is parallel parking Parklets will be buttresses by barricades, barriers or wheel stops and will feature reflective markings Parklets will have a barrier wall or a railing edge to protect users from traffic Parklets will be situated near street lighting or other sources of lighting

We will be piloting this program at the following locations: In front of 18-30 E. Main St ; in front of 18 W. Main St ;In front of 81 Main St.; In front of 126 W. Main St.

As you may know we collaborate with the Downtown Somerville Alliance (“DSA”). The DSA serves as our special improvement district management organization. The DSA will be managing this program and working with our borough professionals to ensure that the placements of the parklets are safe and effective.

Our team consisting of Natalie Pineiro, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, Kevin Sluka, business administrator, Michael Kerwin, vice chairperson of the Board, recently retired director of the Somerset County Business Partnership and Councilwoman Jane Kobuta would be glad to meet with your staff to discuss any details or questions your office may have.

I am certain that Senator Bateman would also like to join in our discussion as well. Please let us know if you would like to meet with us or have any questions, and again to utilize the parking areas in order that we may free up sidewalk space for pedestrian use.

The Downtown Somerville Alliance is a TAPinto marketing partner