Parking spaces in front of three Washington Street restaurants will be closed the next two weekends as Easton awaits other proposals to help downtown businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The town council voted unanimously Monday night to continue the “experiment” of closing off 10 parallel parking spaces along Washington Street. With the spaces closed this past weekend, the Washington Street Pub, Doc’s Downtown Grille and Scossa Restaurant & Lounge offered additional outside dining and saw increased business.
Easton officials would like to see one change — if handicapped accessibility allows: Use the blocked off parking spaces for pedestrian traffic with the extra outside tables on the sidewalk, not the parking spaces.
As the town continues with the weekend closures, downtown business and property owners will meet Thursday morning to discuss strategies for increasing business during the pandemic.
The closures have already given a bump to the three restaurants, Ross Benincasa, executive director of Discover Easton, said Monday.
Compared to the prior weekend, the Pub reported a 130% increase on Friday, 115% on Saturday, and 75% on Sunday, he said.
The numbers were smaller for Scossa and Doc’s, Benincasa said, noting the Pub normally does not have any outside dining.
Scossa saw a 35% increase in table “turns” on Friday compared to the prior weekend and a 20% increase on Saturday, but had a small decrease on Sunday, he said. However, the restaurant did not use the additional outside dining space on Sunday.
Doc’s reported about 40% more business between Friday and Sunday compared to the previous weekend, Benincasa said. Business there also had increased when Washington Street was entirely closed to traffic between Monday, July 6, and Wednesday, July 8.
That closure stemmed from the town’s earlier plan to shut down the street to create a pedestrian promenade on Washington Street beginning Thursday, July 9. During a special July 8 meeting to address concerns about the street closure, town council members voted to halt the promenade idea.
The council later approved the closure of the parking spaces during a Tuesday, July 14, special meeting.
Benincasa, during Monday night’s meeting, said Discover Easton acknowledged communications issues related to the promenade plan.
Asked by newly appointed Councilman Rev. Elmer Neal Davis Jr. to explain, Benincasa cited three issues:
• the organization focused on speaking with restaurateurs and retailers about the plan and should have included service businesses as well;
• not all businesses were made aware of changes in the plan before the public meeting and initial approval; and
• businesses within a larger geographic zone, particularly Harrison Street, should have been included in the initial discussions.
“There was certainly a haste to this plan” in an effort to aid downtown businesses affected by pandemic closures and restrictions, Benincasa said.
Officials heard concerns from two people about safety, he said. One was from a downtown business owner who thought the initial full street closure was safer; the other was from an outside diner who felt the dining tables in the parking spaces put people “very close” to traffic.
Benincasa suggested the town modify last weekend’s setup to direct pedestrians into the parking spaces, which is the method Rehoboth has adopted for its expanded outside dining.
During Monday night’s meeting, Ward 2 Councilman Don Abbatiello initially proposed that the town continue the closure of the parking spaces from this Friday through Monday, Aug. 3, when the council next meets.
That suggestion drew opposition from Ward 1 Councilman Alan Silverstein and Davis.
Silverstein noted that the parking spaces were in use during the day Monday, while Davis said he needed to hear additional information.
“I’m more concerned about safety,” Davis said. “It’s only going to take one incident and all that will be shut down.”
Abbatiello withdrew his motion and Silverstein proposed closing the parking spaces the next two weekends, with pedestrians using the parking spaces as long as there is no accessibility issue.
His motion was approved 5-0.
During public comments, Paul Prager — who owns significant sections of downtown Easton and operates several restaurants — said his businesses and building tenants have about 150 employees working downtown and he currently has about 52 contractors working on many projects in his buildings.
He said he also had tried to get other businesses to move downtown, but parking was a major concern for those owners.
Closing the street for the promenade concept eliminated more than 20 parking spaces on Washington Street, which would have been detrimental to downtown businesses, Prager said, largely reading from a prepared statement.
“The Promenade makes no sense,” he wrote. “It should have been dead on arrival, given our town’s construct, architecture, traffic, parking and this horrible pandemic.”
Prager also took aim at Council President Megan Cook and others who he felt had targeted his businesses after he opposed the promenade.
Read his complete written statement below:Bluepoint LTR to Easton Town Council 7-20-20
Four other people also spoke on the issue, including two with no business interests downtown.
Scott Eglseder said numerous cities had adopted concepts similar to the initial promenade.
He suggested an expanded closure beyond just the one block of Washington Street, with streets closed after 5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and completely closed on Saturdays and Sundays.
Noah Matten said the coronavirus threat will not be abated within the next 12 months and suggested more permanent barricades for any street closures.
“The idea of changing traffic patterns consistently increases risk for a pedestrian strike,” he said. Traffic studies show the greatest risk for pedestrian strikes occurs in the first few days after a change in traffic patterns.
Matten suggested the town close the northbound lane of Washington Street and urged Easton to ensure appropriate traffic barriers are used.
He said the rented barricades met town standards, but fencing borrowed from the Easton Police Department to complete the blocking off of the 10 parking spaces did not.
Steven Mangasarian, who owns restaurants downtown, said he had been dismayed by the tone of rhetoric surrounding the issue and suggested the animus against Prager was more personal and not related to his opposition to the Washington Street Promenade.
“I’m opening myself up to it also because unless it’s absolutely personal against Mr. Prager I too am opposing the Washington Street closure,” he said. “I own restaurants downtown, if somebody wants to boycott me, so be it. So we’ll do an experiment, it is just personal or is it just because I oppose that?”
He also noted that this past weekend had been a modified Plein Air weekend, which drew additional customers.
“There were a lot of extra people in town,” Mangasarian said. “Banning’s felt it, Breakfast in Easton felt it, so we all were lifted a little bit.”
He said he had not heard any good argument for how the street closure would help businesses, particularly restaurants, noting he had owned and operated restaurants in downtown Easton longer than all but one other restaurateur.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business 45 years,” Mangasarian said. “I’ve owned 10 restaurants, all of them successful — nobody really asked me what I thought about all this.”
“Do I think seating is a problem? I really don’t. Do we need more tables? No, not really. Granted people are seating outside, but is that at the expense of seating inside?
“We feel at Banning’s people just don’t want to seat inside, they’d rather sit outside,” Mangasarian said. “Whether it’s fear of the virus or whatever, they do want to seat outside. Is outside seating a good idea? Sure. But is closing Washington Street the solution?”
He said there are 27 parking spaces in the block of Washington Street in front of the courthouse and closing those spaces would make it difficult for customers to find parking.
Promenades “have been undeniably successful” in some places, Mangasarian said. “It’s been tried elsewhere and it’s failed.”
He said the successful ones had vibrant downtowns, nearby customers, well-planned parking and traffic, an anchor, and retail stores and restaurants.
Mangasarian also said there were longtime issues in downtown Easton, including parking and a reluctance among retailers to open on Sundays and later into the evening.
Those issues have been discussed for decades and nothing has happened, he said.
“Let’s take the time to plan it right and not just come up with semi-permanent solutions,” Mangasarian said.
The ugly reality of restaurants is that the businesses live and die on cash flow, he said. The best way to help restaurants as a result of the pandemic would be financially, whether through tax breaks or other measures.