Hoping to throw a lifeline to downtown Athens restaurants and retail stores, city officials have agreed to let restaurants temporarily block off parking spaces for use as outdoor dining space.
By allowing restaurants to take the action over the next four to six weeks, restaurants could recoup losses suffered during the state shutdown to fight novel coronavirus.
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks is allowing restaurants to apply convert lots to outdoor dining. Athens City Council members approved the mayor's action during the council meeting Monday.
The first two applicants — Village Pizza and Lucia's Cocina Mexicana in downtown Athens — will convert four parking spaces to outdoor dining space beginning Thursday, said Tere Richardson, executive director of Athens Main Street. She said she had talked at length with the mayor about the proposal and how it is succeeding in other cities.
"Downtown restaurants are struggling and have been for the past three weeks," Richardson said. "The governor's new rules have allowed restaurants to open to 50% capacity, which is a great start, but the National Main Street organization and city governments (in some cities) are already opening up by expanding their outdoor dining footprint."
Temporarily turning four parking spaces into an outdoor dining space for a restaurant helps both the restaurant and the retail space around it, she said.
Other cities refer to these parking-spots-turned-dining-spaces parklets, Richardson said.
"It makes people feel more comfortable at a 6-foot distance and it offers them the best fresh-air system available," she said.
Currently, restaurants in Alabama are capped at 50% capacity with customers spaced 6 feet apart.
"But, if we included outside dining, we could get them near to the number they normally serve in regular times," Richardson said.
While local downtown business don't have space in which to expand, they do have adequate parking space.
"Right now, because of density, the downtown restaurants can only expand to the outside with the city's permission," she said. "This is temporary — not a fixture — this dining in the parking we will see will be four to six weeks, until we get over this hump until the government lifts all restrictions."
Richardson plans to have barriers delivered to Village Pizza and Lucia's Thursday so they can use them to block up four spaces. The addition of umbrella tables will make the space perfect for customers.
In the meantime, Sweetest Things Tearoom is moving to sidewalk dining, which will allow them to bring the tables, chairs and service outside, which they have not done before, she said.
"I'm hoping it is going to take off like it has in other cities," said Richardson, who listed Rosemary Beach and Saint Augustine, Florida; San Jose, California; parts of Atlanta, Georgia; and Mobile as just some of the cities that have used the temporary parklets to turnaround restaurant and retail revenue.
She said the project is geared toward the downtown only because restaurants in other parts of the city have private lots and plenty of space to create outdoor space. They don't need permission from the city to do it.
"Athens Main Street, restaurants and retailers are so grateful to the mayor and council because anytime you touch The Square it will bring a storm of approval or disapproval," Richardson said. "We feel like this is something we need to try to help the restaurants survive."
So they won't feel the loss of four parking spaces, the following businesses will have two dedicated spots — Limestone Drug, Trinity's, Tammy's Fine Jewelry and Pimentos.
She said residents can help downtown merchants by leaving the available parking spaces for restaurant and retail business customers during the day.
"This is a great time for people to be more aware of how much our local businesses need out support," she said. "You can honor that by parking in the longterm lot when you are going to be on The Square for hours or you are a professional who works at the courthouse. Don't take that one parking spot in front of the merchant or restaurant. It's something everyone can do to help support them."
Richardson thanked city officials for their efforts to approve the parklets.
"I want to thank the mayor, and especially Chris Seibert, with helping out with that, and the rest of the City Council for supporting it," Richardson said. "It is something we can do and do quickly that can make a difference immediately."