Fells Point resident and architect Bryce Turner wanted a way to give back to his local Baltimore community amid the coronvirus pandemic.
As restaurants begin to resume outdoor dining after months of being closed to the public, Turner saw an opportunity to help convert parking spaces into dining areas for Fells Point restaurants.
“We certainly want to help wherever we can … We have a little extra time right now, so we’ve been able to do it and we’re really pleased to do it. I live in Fells Point, so it’s a little bit about trying to think globally and act locally,” said Turner, who is the president of BCT Design Group.
On Wednesday, volunteers assembled a “parklet,” or mini park, in the parking spaces in front of Kooper’s Tavern as a model for outdoor seating.
Although the parklet is just a prototype for now, as the restaurant awaits approval from the Department of Transportation, it is meant to show other businesses how they might be able to creatively use their surroundings as they reopen, said Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of Fells Point Main Street.
The parklet design includes wooden pallets that have been repurposed as barriers along the curb to separate the seating area from the sidewalk. Wooden spools serve as side tables for plants and other decorations, and chairs and tables spaced at least six feet apart from one another will be set up in the parking spaces along Thames Street in front of Kooper’s Tavern.
Smith hopes that if the parklet dining idea takes off, it will help businesses regain customers while adhering to coronavirus guidelines.
Once restaurants get approval from the Department of Transportation, Smith said she is aiming to have as many of the parklets installed as possible by July 1.
Smith added that she would also talk with the Department of Transporation about the prospect of using the parklets for retail businesses as well.
“We’re hoping to get people back on their feet,” she said. “Once the restaurants are up and running with outdoor seating, retail will come back we hope.”
Although health experts have emphasized that outdoor dining still carries some level of risk, especially for individuals who are older or who have underlying health conditions, they have also noted that it poses a lower risk than indoor dining as long as social distancing and other health precautions are put in place.
Gov. Larry Hogan last month allowed restaurants to reopen outdoor dining. Restaurants that resume outdoor dining must distance patrons at least six feet apart, use disposable paper menus or sanitize menus between use, sanitize outdoor tables and chairs between each seating, check staff members’ temperatures daily, and require staff to wear face coverings while interacting with other employees or patrons.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who has proceeded at a slower pace than the governor, has also allowed outdoor dining to resume, and restaurants that do not have an outdoor dining permit can apply for a temporary permit online.
Smith said she sent a survey to local restaurant owners to see how many would want the Department of Transportation to evaluate whether they could use their parking spaces for seating. Of those restaurateurs, 23 said they would be interested.
Turner said they are still determining how much each parklet would cost businesses, but he said they are doing what they can to reduce the financial burden on businesses that have already been hit hard by the pandemic.
“We need to be cost effective with this because it’s expensive and these restaurateurs are absolutely stretched to the end right now,” he said.
Turner’s design group has donated their time to the project, and several businesses have donated materials, such as wooden palettes, crates and spools.
Smith said if any businesses have materials that they would like to donate, they can email her at [email protected].
Fells Point Main Street received a $15,000 grant from AARP to help foster al fresco dining and other outdoor activities. The organization is using that money to buy bollards and do some advertising, Smith said.
Restaurants will pay for their own tables, chairs and decorative items, such as plants and pots. But as a whole, the project is meant to limit the cost for businesses, Smith said.
She added that once the Department of Transportation decides who can have parklets, she plans to assemble teams of volunteers to build the parklets for businesses.
“We’re going to try to make this as inexpensive as possible,” she said. “We’re going to help our merchants as much as we can with volunteer labor.”
Smith said the parklets are intended to make outdoor dining accessible for more restaurants as they mitigate the impact of coronavirus. But if the idea is a hit and doesn’t create traffic issues, it could be here to stay after the pandemic has subsided.
“If it seems to be a great idea and everybody likes it, we will apply to be permanent,” she said. “If it’s not working and we have gridlock and there’s problems, then it’s temporary. We can always go back to the way we were.”
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