After more than a year, the Main Street construction project is nearly finished, with a complete reopening tentatively set for June 12. To celebrate, city officials are planning to shut down the road again – for a few hours each weekend, at least.
Mayor Jerry Clifton and City Manager Tom Coleman envision closing down Main Street and turning it into a pedestrian mall during weekend evenings and allowing restaurants to set up tables in the street.
They see it as a way to help businesses hurt by the pandemic and as a safer way to welcome people back to downtown. Many experts believe dining outdoors presents less risk of contracting coronavirus than eating inside a restaurant.
“We’ve got to think about getting people back and making it a destination again,” Clifton said, adding that retail businesses could also have space for sidewalk sales.
For months, Clifton, Coleman and The Newark Partnership had been working on plans to bring back the once-popular Newark Nite festival this summer as a way to celebrate the end of the construction. Because of the pandemic, a large festival is no longer feasible, but Clifton said the pedestrian mall could elicit the same sort of community feel.
The city is still waiting for approval from the Delaware Department of Transportation, which has authority over closing Main Street, but on Monday, city council passed an emergency ordinance making changes to city code necessary to facilitate the plan.
The ordinance gives Coleman the authority to approve permit applications from restaurants seeking to expand their outdoor seating, whether that’s part of a pedestrian mall or in other areas outside the restaurant.
It also allows Coleman to approve noise waivers for restaurants to have outdoor music. He noted that he will only approve noise levels “reasonable for a dinner environment” and won’t allow it to continue late into the night.
“We’re not looking for somebody to move their DJ outside, but we do want to allow them to have some music,” Coleman said.
The code changes apply throughout the city, not just downtown, meaning a restaurant located in a shopping center could apply to add tables outside or in an area of its parking lot.
Klondike Kate’s has applied to add four tables in the alley along the side of the building.
“We are pleading with the city to please give us and the other businesses on Main Street a fighter’s chance during these tough times we are all facing in some capacity,” manager Jaime Kelso wrote in a letter to city council.
Ryan German, owner of Caffé Gelato, applied to install tables on the bump-out that was built in front of his restaurant as part of the road construction project. He put tables out on Monday morning, but a code enforcement officer made him remove them because his application had not yet been approved.
“I think the biggest motivation for me with having outdoor seating is it’s safer to eat outside,” German said. “Having more outdoor tables is going to be safer for the diners in Newark.”
Mad Mac’s on South College Avenue has applied for additional outdoor seating as well.
Councilman Stu Markham said that businesses receiving special considerations need to be careful not to abuse their permits, which can be revoked by the city.
“I’ll yank it in a heartbeat, and don’t push it,” Markham said. “We all know who the certain business members are that will push things, and I would make it clear not to push it.”
Clifton said he hopes to have the first pedestrian mall evening by mid to late June, depending on when the construction is done, when DelDOT signs off and how quickly the city can process permit applications. He hopes to have them each weekend through the end of the summer.