Sunday, May 22, 2022

Weeks into ‘phase two,’ City of Wilmington still considering ‘Downtown Alive’ plans for expanded dining

Downtown Alive would close public streets and allow businesses the chance to utilize streets and sidewalks for additional seating.

WILMINGTON — When Governor Roy Cooper announced phase two of the reopening plan for the state following Covid-19, local government across the state adapted to help restaurants reopen to the best of their ability. Since the Governor’s orders only allowed indoor seating at a reduced capacity, cities and counties amended their guidelines to allow for exterior seating surpassing what was previously permitted.

While some places, like Carolina Beach and New Hanover County, were expeditious in approving the additional outdoor dining options after the state ABC Commission agreed to allow extended alcohol sales the City of Wilmington has still not taken any action — despite the request to do so.

In Wilmington, the Downtown Business Alliance helped spearhead a proposal called Downtown Alive in early May, ahead of phase two, with the hopes of getting their plans approved to help businesses as soon as the Governor announced such a phase.

Downtown Alive would “close Downtown streets adjacent to restaurants/bars/retail and allow restaurants and bars the ability to expand seating onto the sidewalk in front of their building and possibly into the street parking spaces. The streets will be designated as pedestrian use.  Retailers will have the ability to expand their wares onto the sidewalk in front of their shop as well.”

Read more: Nearly 1,000 survey responses: 97% favor closing downtown Wilmington streets for restaurants and shops [Free]

When it was first announced the DBA actually conducted a survey that gained nearly 1,000 responses, 97% of the respondents were in favor of the proposal.

City Council along with city staff have heard from the DBA and other downtown stakeholders during a previous meeting. On Monday morning, Council heard yet another presentation regarding the plans — but still have not yet made a decision.

While towns like Carolina Beach did make the decision to allow additional outdoor seating with little debate, the request is a bit different for the City of Wilmington. If approved it would allow downtown businesses to use public right-of-ways and streets on certain days. In Carolina Beach restaurants were simply permitted to use their parking lots to expand their seating.

The proposal

A look at what the City of Wilmington could allow if they move forward with the DBA’s request. (Port City Daily/Courtesy City of Wilmington)

The proposal from the DBA included several points including:

  • Close Downtown streets adjacent to restaurants/bars/retail and allow restaurants & bars the ability to expand seating onto the sidewalk in front of their building & possibly into the street parking spaces.  The streets will be designated as pedestrian use.  Retailers will have the ability to expand their wares onto the sidewalk in front of their shop as well.
  • Business owners will need to supervise their designated spaces and be sensitive to public safety.
  • Restaurant and bar customers must remain in the areas designated for the business the food/alcohol was purchased from.
  • Please keep in mind that “Downtown Alive” will be rolled out only as a temporary measure to increase sales for our existing Downtown businesses.
  • The event will be held Thursday, Friday from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., Saturdays & Sundays from 10 am until 10 pm.
  • Specific streets to be closed will be identified based on the number of restaurants/bars and retail on the street wishing to participate taking into consideration that some corridors must remain open for those restaurants who wish to maintain pick-up/delivery.
  • Affected street meters to be bagged and vehicles must be moved by 4 pm Thursdays and Fridays, and Saturday and Sundays by 9 am.
  • City parking deck will be open to parking at normal rates to offset lost revenue due the bagged meters.
  • Downtown Trolley route will need to be relocated from Front St during the events.

Council response

While the majority of people who responded to the survey were in favor of the plan, and several people suggested the plan be implemented year-round, City Council is not as keen on the idea. On Monday Deputy City Manager Thom Moton gave elected leaders a look at what it could look like if approved.

The request would be a limited time only special event and would expire the Tuesday following Labor Day, or sooner, depending on when Cooper allows the state to move into phase three. City staff has spent a significant amount of time working on the request, and have made two staff reports as well as two staff presentation to City Council.

City Council has had some hesitation to the request and while staff understands the council wants to help the DBA help businesses, there were some concerns as well. Diner safety and street use were one such item of concern.

In order to address safety, the city has considered adding ridgid street barriers in order to prevent any vehicle traffic from traveling down the closed roads.

If approved, the following streets would be closed for the events:

  • Outdoor Dining Areas: 
  • Front Street – bounded by Market & Chesnutt
  • Princess Street – bounded by Front & 2nd
  • Princess Street– bounded by 2nd & 3rd
  • Front Street – bounded by Market & Dock

And while the survey showed there was ample support from the community at large for the plans, members of City Council have asked for specifics as to what businesses will actually participate in the event. The plans would end up costing the city due to the need for traffic control, traffic diverting, and other additional staff needs.

Another concern discussed dealt with the horse-drawn carriage business that operates in the Downtown area. According to city staff, the owners of the business had requested they be permitted to use the streets for the horse-drawn tours if the city does close the roads to vehicular traffic. City Council was not sure how that would work since the carriage would be considered a vehicle, and would not likely fit through the rigid barriers.

No official decision was made on Monday but the City Council may again consider the idea during its meeting on Tuesday. For those interested, you can watch the entire presentation online.

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