NEWTON, MA — After weeks of planning, Newton will allow restaurants to expand dining outdoors at the recommendation of a commission designed to help businesses in the city. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller called the expanded outdoor dining phase "Newton Al Fresco," in an effort to help support local businesses.
As Massachusetts begins allowing limited indoors service, Newton restaurants will also be able to serve diners at tables set up in parking spaces on the street in front of their establishments.
Businesses say extensive outdoor dining is crucial for economic recovery among restaurants.
And while some business owners say they they're glad to have Newton move in the right direction, they hope the city will do more.
For several months restaurants have been forced to close temporarily, or with a severely diminished clientele amid pandemic. The economic uncertainty in an industry that often has already tight margins, forced a number of restaurants to close and others are concerned about their future. Monday, the state allowed for limited indoor dining, but restauranteurs are looking for as much help getting back on their feet as possible —and quick.
Although Newton had already begun to allow restaurants to serve diners on sidewalks and private parking lots, and provided picnic tables, many said they wanted the city do do more, and pointed to Waltham where the city shut down a section of Moody Street to allow for restaurants to expand table seating in an effort to help the businesses the first week of June: Waltham To Close Part Of Moody Street To Cars To Help Businesses.
Nine restaurant owners wrote the mayor outlining frustrations recently:
“We are frustrated by the lack of action by the City of Newton. We are frustrated that other municipalities immediately moved to support their restaurant operators but you did not," they wrote. "Our asks are not ludicrous. We are simply requesting the City of Newton to do what our neighbors have already done. If other municipalities such as Waltham and Boston were able to immediately support restaurants with expanding dining via street closures and metered parking space takeovers, why is the City of Newton unable to provide similar support in a timely manner?"
A Boston Business Journal editorial also called on Newton last week to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Waltham and Boston.
But Fuller - who is also dealing with the sudden retirement of the police chief, a push to defund the police and passing a tight budget - said she's been working on the idea for some two months, with the help of the Newton Economic Development Commission. It wasn't until recently that the 14 member commission finished their effort, based on outreach and a survey.
The commission not only recommended expanding outdoor dining into sidewalks, parking lots and streets, but also adding outdoor cultural offerings in village centers to attract people, promoting a “buy local” marketing campaign, amending Newton’s zoning ordinance to make it more business friendly, providing support for Newton-based child care providers and developing a privately funded Newton Small Business Recovery Fund. All of these efforts are in process, the mayor said in a statement.
She said restaurants will be required to provide protective barriers along the three sides of the outdoor dining that face the street as are temporary movable accessible ramps for individuals who are mobility challenged.
On top of beginning to implement those new recommendations, Fuller said the city was in the process of applying for MassDOT’s Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program to fund the purchase more traffic safety equipment and supplies, including ramps, protective planters and flower pots.
"I know the city’s been working on it for a while," said Newton-Needham Chamber President Greg Reibman. "I totally believe the mayor wanted to do this, it just took a while to get there. She’s got a lot on her plate. It’s understandable that things don’t move so quickly with everything going on."
But, he said, from the businesses' perspective, every weekend matters. Some businesses in West Newton told him they knew they weekend business when Moody Street closed to cars.
"Moody Street was a party, so if you live on that side of the city people were more likely to go there," said Reibman. "It’s too bad it couldn’t have happened sooner."
Cambridge just announced an extensive street closure, Natick announced they have plans to close streets, but Newton is only closing some parking spaces, he said.
"And that’s a good step, but we really think there could be more done," said Reibman.
On Monday the second half of Phase 2 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan went into operation, including allowing indoor table service at restaurants (with some restrictions), and the allowance for offices to expand from 25 percent to 50 percent capacity, while complying with the Mandatory Safety Standards for Workplaces.
Phase 3 —which includes gyms, movie theaters — will not begin until July 6, at the earliest, Gov. Charlie Baker said last week.
Patch reporter Jenna Fisher can be reached at Jenna.Fisher@patch.com or by calling 617-942-0474. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@ReporterJenna). Have a press release you'd like posted on the Patch? Here's how to post a press release, a column, event or opinion piece.