Outdoor dining has become popular in many cities’ downtown areas, but Mount Airy officials have learned it will involve more here than tossing out some chairs and tables.
Efforts to promote that experience among the handful of restaurants along North Main Street have been under way for about two years, as part of an overall plan to make the city’s central business district more user-friendly.
And while outdoor and/or patio dining has become a fixture in larger cities during warmer months, such as in downtown Winston-Salem, a plate full of changes would be required to offer the same atmosphere in Mount Airy, municipal officials have learned. And some could leave a bad taste in the mouths of community members.
Issues including the effect on parking and vehicular traffic — as well as space limitations, the downtown topography and other considerations — must be addressed before outside dining can become widespread here, according to Andy Goodall, a city planner. He has researched the issue and recently make a presentation to the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
“Obviously, it would be a major change from the way downtown looks now,” said Goodall, whose research identified ways other communities have accommodated outdoor dining.
The common thread among them, also the objective in Mount Airy, is fuller utilization of downtown areas as places of enjoyment in addition to centers of commerce. “Not just come down and do your business, but hang out,” Goodall said of the prevailing philosophy.
Concepts such as a “parklet” idea that originated in San Francisco allow this to be accomplished by providing additional spaces for seating — which is occurring with plans for a new mini-park here with a gazebo for musical performances. The parklet philosophy, which involves small spaces serving as sidewalk extensions, also promote the use of public art, plantings and other activities.
And fixtures such as “bump-outs” have been installed along sidewalks in some cities, which are decorative sidewalks and curbs that jut out into the street and allow pedestrians to get to the other sides easier. “It’s a shorter cross,” Goodall explained.
Adding bump-outs serves to widen sidewalks as well as make streetscapes more visually appealing by increasing space for vegetation and community amenities.
Gene Rees, a longtime downtown Mount Airy businessman, said during the recent presentation that bump-outs could be installed at sites of existing restaurants on North Main Street. But this could be a problem if a restaurant later closes, Rees acknowledged.
Having a restaurant-only block is one example of how outdoor dining could occur downtown. “It would probably make a lot of people upset at the beginning,” Goodall said of that option.
Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison, who also attended the presentation, said there would be a need to slow down traffic if downtown dining is to be a safe and viable option. Utilizing some of the alleyways for that purpose could be one alternative to a strictly on-street approach, according to the discussion.
Jeff Boyles, city public works director, said one place to start could be areas where yellow stripes already exist to prohibit parking, such as along Moore Avenue. “You’d have to work around the hydrants, obviously,” Boyles said.
Some cities have provided extra space for sidewalk amenities by taking away one lane of traffic, but that would be difficult in downtown Mount Airy, Goodall said. “We don’t have the right-of-way width like a Statesville does, to take one lane out,” he added of one city that has embraced this step.
And since there is only so much space downtown, transferring it from one use to another could impact existing facilities — including on-street parking, the city planner says, adding that a “parking diet” would have to occur.
“You’d lose some spaces on Main Street, but you’d still have most of your parking left,” Goodall said of the off-street lots dotting the downtown landscape. “You’d just have to walk a little bit.”
Downtown Mount Airy now has about 1,900 parking spaces, which the planner called “a sufficient number.”
“Most of you have probably heard the opposite,” Morrison, the Main Street coordinator, said of city officials’ contacts with merchants and other stakeholders.
The topography of downtown Mount Airy also must be taken into account with open-area dining facilities.
“We don’t really have a lot of flat ground,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said. “I think it would be a good idea to look at some of the areas that are as flat as possible” and maybe do some leveling, he said.
Another idea appeals to Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, that of deck, or patio, dining.
“That may be a possibility, but it may also clutter your downtown,” Goodall responded. While he knows of some cities where rooftop dining occurs, many codes issues are involved with that, the planner said.
After the recent presentation, city officials indicated that they believe the idea of pursuing outside dining downtown should be explored further.
“I’d like to see some proposals, and see which restaurants would be interested in doing this,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.