SOMERVILLE, NJ - Main Street restaurants will not get the opportunity to expand their outdoor dining accommodations beyond the curb and on to Route 28.
The Borough Council adopted and sent a resolution to the state Department of Transportation earlier this month after Gov. Phil Murphy gave permission for restaurants to re-open for outdoor dining only, rescinding an executive order issued in March that had shut down restaurants and other non-essential businesses to help contain the COVID-19 virus.
The borough's proposal to shut down the state road and create a temporary restaurant plaza on the weekends was rejected by the state Department of Transportation, through the DOT did offer to ban parking on Main Street between Grove Street and Doughty Avenue, allowing restaurants to extend their tables and chairs to the curb.
But that wasn't going to make much of a difference, according to Borough Clerk Kevin Sluka, who consulted with Mayor Dennis Sullivan and members of the Borough Council after receiving the state's letter June 15th.
The conclusion: "That really doesn't help us," Sluka said.
Here's the text of the borough's "Thanks, but no thanks" letter responding to the DOT's offer; it was sent to Aliaj Alai, supervising engineer, NJDOT:
"The Borough of Somerville is in receipt of your letter dated June 15, 2020 in reference to rescinding permissive parking regulations. Kindly be advised we learned today that as part of Governor’s Murphy Stage 2 reopening, that 25% capacity will be allowed in restaurants, along with the sidewalk cafés I believe that we will not need to remove parking off of Route 28 . . . "
The proposed closure would have encouraged more visitors to come to the borough, increase pedestrian traffic and business in the downtown district, and most importantly create more space for tables and chairs while encouraging social distancing, according to Sullivan and Natalie Pineiro, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance.
Barriers would have been erected and detours would have been put in place to direct traffic off of Main Street
Somerville's dining district has emerged the past few years as a top-flight destination for a four-star meal and designer drinks - Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro on East Main Street is the reigning "Best Bar in New Jersey."
Sluka said restaurant owners have been creative in expanding their outdoor dining spaces: the Division Street Café has moved its potted plants and rope barriers further towards the center of the Division Street pedestrian mall; Village Brewing has erected large tents behind its building in its parking lot to accommodate more outdoor customers; Project P.U.B. and Tapastre have also set up tables and chairs in their parking lot.
Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro extended its outdoor dining area by two storefronts that are closed after 5 p.m. Mannion's Pub & Restaurant has done the same in front of two empty storefronts. Alfonso's and Wolfgang's Steakhouse have expanded their outdoor seating from Main Street around the corner of their buildings.Tents and pop-up canvas pavilions provide shade and protection from rain.
The Sunrise Luncheonette now offers outdoor dining, with brightly-colored tables and chairs painted in a Mexican theme at the corner of East Main Street and South Bridge Street.
"During a normal summer season, there will be some encroachment on adjacent properties," Sluka said, "but I think people have been more understanding. We haven't gotten any complaints.".
Sluka said the borough has issued 34 outdoor cafe permits to many restaurants that had never offered dining al Fresco but are forced to take advantage of the opportunity. because of limitations on indoor dining and the need to recover from the reduced business brought on by the pandemic.
Effective July 2, restaurants will be able to serve indoors, but at 25 percent capacity, another small step in a return to normalcy for restaurants that were limited to take-out and curbside service for three months.
That, combined with the resourcefulness of restaurant owners means the perceived need to spread tables and chairs across Main Street has been diminished, according to Sluka.
"At this point we've got things flowing, all the restaurants are open and truthfully, they definitely did a better job creatively that I thought they could," Sluka said.
There is precedent for the state to agree to a temporary closure of Route 28.
Beginning in the spring, through the summer and fall into early winter, a variety of events necessitate the closure of the state highway - street fairs, firemen parades, the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, the 3-day Tour of Somerville bicycle races and the Central New Jersey Jazz Festival.
The NJDOT has a permit process in place to review such requests.