SOMERVILLE, NJ - Dining al fresco in the downtown restaurant district along Main Street is poised to expand beyond the curb and in to the street where cars normally park.
The Downtown Somerville Alliance, the non-profit agency that oversees management of the downtown retail and restaurant district, has been working with the state Department of Transportation seeking permission to heighten the dining experience in Somerville amidst restrictions - no indoor dining - imposed by Gov. Phil Murphy to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NJDOT has jurisdiction over Main Street, which is designated a state highway - a portion of Route 28.
The DSA expects the NJDOT to sign off on its application submitted last Friday to install "parklets" - raised platforms built even with the curb and extending into parking spaces - in front of six or seven Main Street restaurants according to the design approved by the state Department of Transportation late last month.
The DSA had a virtual meeting Monday night during which the parklets plan was discussed.
There will also be a parklet installed in front of DeMartino's Restaurant on Davenport Street.
Each parklet measures 20-by-6 feet.
The parklets are to be installed at four East Main Street locations - Da Fillipo Sutentica Cucina Italiana, 132 E. Main St.,; a cluster of three locations, Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro, 18 E. Main St.; Kyma Greek Cuisine, 24 E. Main St and Arusuvai Indian Restaurant, 30 E. Main St.
West Main Street locations include Savor Restaurant, 18 W. Main St.; Cafe Picasso, 81 W. Main St., and The Venetian/Central Pizzeria, 122-126 W. Main St.
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 first two proposals were rejected by Diane Guitierrez-Scacetti, commissioner of the NJDOT.
"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 "parklets" could be installed by the end of this week, according to Pineiro.
The Downtown Somerville Alliance is a TAPinto marketing partner