HAVERHILL — The outdoor restaurant seating "bumpouts" that popped up downtown last summer — first to diners' delight, but later to the ire of passers-by — may return this year.
The City Council adopted a formal ordinance regarding the use of the temporary bumpouts, or "parklets," at its Tuesday meeting. As the first set of formal guidelines the city has adopted regarding the temporary outdoor seating areas, the ordinance focuses on putting the cost of on the businesses — not the city — and ensuring that the parklets are aesthetically pleasing while still being safe.
The parklets first appeared in May of last year during the Better Block Festival. A1 Deli and Barrett's Speciality Foods each took advantage of the temporary dining spots, which were intended to draw more business.
Due to their popularity, said Councilor William Macek, the parklets were allowed to stay in place until the fall; but safety concerns from the Police Department led to the installation of unsightly Jersey barriers around the parklets, which drew complaints from councilors and the public.
During the council meeting Tuesday, the council and Assistant Director of Economic Development Nate Robertson were in agreement that they do not want to see the Jersey barriers return to the streets downtown. The ordinance does not specify the exact type of barrier to be used, but does say parklets "should have vertical elements that make them visible to traffic, such as flexible posts, bollards or contiguous barriers" and later, when specifying the allowed dimensions of a parklet, suggests they can be achieved with "rectangular concrete planters."
"In terms of granting the license, these have to go through all the different boards in the city and the Licensing Board," Robertson said. "They can reject or recommend changes of any of the designs, whether that's because of safety concerns, of aesthetic concerns, or how it affects the walkability of downtown. These are all things we included in the language."
Businesses that wish to add a parklet outside their business must apply for a permit and cover the cost of construction, the barriers, and insurance. Robertson said that between the permit, insurance, bond and construction, the addition of a parklet will cost "several thousand dollars."
"The worry is this is too cost prohibitive, perhaps, for a small business," he said. "This is our first try at codifying something like this. Maybe we see what happens and go from there."
Robertson said each parklet may take up no more than two street parking spaces, and that he anticipates no more than six parking spaces will be lost to parklets this coming summer. The ordinance allows for the parklets to be installed between April 1 and Oct. 15.
The ordinance passed 8-1, with Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua dissenting. He was opposed to language in the ordinance that says a business may use the parklets to serve food or "other allowable commercial purposes." He expressed concern that this would allow a business downtown to sell anything, even recreational marijuana; but only one dispensary, for medical marijuana, currently has a community host agreement with the city, and it is set to open in a business park off Computer Drive, not downtown.
Bevilacqua also said he would prefer to see the businesses coordinate with the city to build permanent sidewalk bumpouts like those on Washington Street.
"It's the safest way to do it," he said. "We should do it right."
The rest of the council apparently disagreed, however, and were supportive of the parklet proposal. The council made just one change to the proposed ordinance in which they changed the language such that any additional barriers required for public safety must come at the expense of the business, not the city.
"That should be the burden of the entity that wants the parklet," said Councilor Michael McGonagle. "I just want to make sure the city does not have to be responsible."
Macek said he was eager to support businesses in the city.
"I think restaurants have a high failure rate, and anything we can do to help restaurants be successful I think is something that we should consider doing," he said. "We want to work with all our businesses in the city to do what we can to help them survive and thrive."