P&Z looks to increase outdoor eating in Westport
As the weather warms and residents head outdoors, the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) is hoping it can amend regulations to reinvigorate the town's street and sidewalk culture.
First up: more outdoor dining.
Second up: more restaurants in general.
Third up: more street fairs.
"The town plan, our own sensibilities and the commentary we've received from the public all come together to encourage a very vigorous effort to help bring Westport's regulations more in line with contemporary society," said Ron Corwin, chairman of the P&Z. "And if you look at the communities that surround us, they have already taken those steps, which is what we really need to do."
Step one faces an important hurdle next Thursday, when the commission will hold a public hearing on Amendment 610. The regulation change would allow restaurants and food-retail sellers to obtain zoning permits for outdoor dining -- described as either self-service dining or full table service -- without the need for variances or site-plan approvals, as is now the case.
Also, food-retail sellers would be allowed to have "some limited indoor seating for customers" -- it says up to 10 seats, for example -- without providing any additional parking.
The new regulations would be town-wide, Corwin said, though conversations about the downtown area have provided much of the impetus for the amendments. Corwin referred to the three steps as "quick hits" aligned with the commission's broader goal of making Westport an easier place to do business.
A second public hearing is scheduled to be held on May 20, for an amendment aimed at easing regulations for opening a restaurant. A third public hearing is calendared for June 10, for an amendment that would make it easier for nonprofits to hold street fairs.
Potential challenges to Amendment 610 may include determining what hours to allow the outdoor dining, how it will work for stores abutting residential property and who would clean up added litter to streets and sidewalks, Corwin said. Those matters are all up for discussion.
Residents interviewed in the downtown area on Wednesday evening expressed mostly support for the outdoor eating amendment.
Cristina Sisca, who lives about 10 minutes from downtown by foot, was strolling down Main Street with a friend from New Canaan.
"I have three dogs, and I like to come down here with them and eat outside," she said, pointing out her usual stop, Oscar's Deli. Typically, she ties her dogs to the outside of the fenced-in eating area and they behave well, she said. "Any new outdoor eating space would be good."
Joe Bianco, a 30-year resident, said the amendment could help return an actual nightlife to Main Street, which existed decades ago, he said.
"On Friday and Saturday, there would be people up and down this street -- in coffee shops and in restaurants," he said.
Though they are much newer to the area, Christopher Bejnar and Elizabeth Sinchak, both residents of South Norwalk, agreed.
"I think Westport has this European vibe, which is very conducive to outdoor eating," Sinchak said. "Yet there's this quietude here that I don't really like, and I'm disappointed in the lack of cafes."
She took a sip of coffee that was purchased at Crumbs Bake Shop, 40 Post Road E. "Westport needs to lighten up!" she said.
While expressing support, Frank Mioli Jr., manager of Westport Pizzeria, also harped on the challenges.
"It would be a good idea, provided whoever is offering the seating maintains the cleanliness," he said, spreading a ladleful of sauce on freshly flattened dough. "I would like it, but with our location and tight sidewalk space, I don't think it would do much for us."
Erica Ramos, an employee at Crumbs, said the bakery was fully in support. "We love our outside seating area," she said, nodding toward the row of tables lining the wide sidewalk.
Diana Fenves, a playwright from Dallas, sat at one of the tables and ate a vanilla cupcake. She stared across the street at the library as she spoke. Later, a play she'd written was going to be performed there. As it was her first time in Westport, she hunkered down with the building in view to avoid getting lost.
Asked if more outdoor eating here would be a good idea, she nodded yes. "If you make Connecticut warmer that is, Fenves added. "Otherwise everyone should move someplace warmer."