Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Accounts Dillon Moran has announced his ambitious plan to expand outdoor dining. He wants to close some streets on weekends (Thursday to Sunday) during the spring and summer months. This proposal, while laudable, will need sober and rigorous oversight. The initiative seems rife to fall prey to the law of unanticipated consequences. Caution seems especially important in light of the many management problems that have plagued the new Council.
The resolution under consideration on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, would empower him with broad authority to pursue his publicly announced goals.
During the pandemic, the Governor, using the executive authority granted him by the legislature, attempted to address the crisis faced by restaurants. The state had imposed a fifty percent reduction in restaurant capacity. To offset this, along with the public’s fear of eating indoors, the New York State Liquor Authority eased its rules and oversight to temporarily allow restaurants to move some of their dining to the sidewalk and even the street.
To come to the aid of our city’s eateries, the previous Council adopted amendments to the city’s code to facilitate these expansions. While during the first year there were some considerable delays in issuing permits, in the second year things went quite smoothly.
It is important to bear in mind the unique circumstances that existed during this period. First and foremost, the demand for dining along with shopping had been suppressed by the threat of infection. This meant that the traffic downtown during this period was greatly reduced. This helped minimize the logistical inconveniences that might have accompanied the restaurant expansions.
In addition, the public was sympathetic to the needs of the restaurants that were in crisis, and it was understood that the entire endeavor was temporary.
Now Commissioner Moran is proposing to take what was designed as a temporary fix to assist restaurants during Covid and to expand it and make it permanent for at least the next three years. This proposed change raises a number of issues that should be considered before moving ahead.
As an example, consider the Jersey barriers. Those were the large concrete barriers the city used on Phila and Henry Streets. D.A. Collins was extremely generous to the city providing these to the city for free and taking responsibility for delivering and removing them. It is unreasonable to expect that D.A. Collins will permanently support these barriers.
That having been said, the barriers were not a great long-term option. They are ugly and they represented a hazard for cars negotiating Phila Street at the time. Critical to Saratoga Springs’ success is its charm and beauty. We do not want to look like downtown Bagdad.
The original amendment passed by the Kelly administration barred the use of “decorations”, but Commissioner Moran’s proposal has removed this prohibition. What is a “decoration?” It is not defined. Clearly, this needs to be thought through more carefully.
Any expansion of restaurants brings on a host of requirements from the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) that must be met. While some of these restrictions were loosened during Covid that is no longer the case, and the old more demanding rules are back in effect. The process of applying to the SLA can take considerable time and investment, and it is not clear what effect they may have on a restaurant’s ability to expand in the coming years.
Perhaps most importantly the plan for this more permanent expansion needs to take into consideration the effect on other retail businesses, residents, and building owners. During Covid, there was a great deal of community support to assist the city’s restaurants which were in dire need. Other issues and inconveniences were tolerated or overlooked. With city restaurants now recovering and doing well it is time to address those concerns as the city looks to make outdoor dining a more permanent fixture on the city’s street.
Our Downtown Is More Than Restaurants
As Commissioner Moran is apparently an investor in one of the downtown restaurants and as his brother operates a downtown restaurant, it is understandable that they would be sensitive to the needs of the hospitality industry, but our downtown is made up of more than restaurants. We have retail operations, offices, and residential properties.
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce president Todd Shimkus told the Daily Gazette:
“The city needs to work with the neighbors on each street individually because they have different means and different abilities to service outdoor areas without conflicting with their neighbors,” he said, noting that Caffe Lena and a non-restaurant Coles Woodwind on Phila Street, had legitimate challenges associated with outdoor dining in 2020.Daily Gazette 2/1/22
Transparency Is Essential– People Need to Be Informed
Critical to the success of this endeavor would be proper public notice and education. It is essential that all the parties in an area that might be affected by the closing of streets and the expansion of dining be properly advised and allowed a public forum if they have reservations about a plan.
I have submitted for the public hearing the following suggestions to be included in the amended code:
- The neighbors of restaurants planning to expand should be notified when the Council is considering applications for permits.
- Neighbors should be notified of any changes to be made in nearby public spaces such as streets to be closed or made one way in relation to expanded outdoor dining.
- At a minimum the people to be notified should be on the same block but it should probably extend beyond that block and should include other business owners, residents, and building owners.
- The notice mailed to effected parties should include a detailed drawing of what is planned along with a narrative.
- Any documents submitted to the Commissioner of Accounts by other departments such as Public Safety, Risk Management, and Public Works regarding proposed expansions should be posted on the city’s website.
The first two months of this City Council have involved a series of fumbles including the failure to adhere to the open meetings law, the ignoring of state laws and the city charter, and the failure to meet self-imposed deadlines for advising the public on significant initiatives.
This record makes the ambitious plans for closing streets and redesigning our city’s streetscapes worrisome. The best antidote for this is transparency so that the public can inform the Council of any problems that they may not have considered.
Unfortunately, this pattern of opacity has continued with the handling of this outdoor dining proposal. While Moran has scheduled a number of public hearings on outdoor dining the actual document to be voted on was not available to the public until late last Friday night, March 11. Now the Council is scheduled to vote on Moran’s proposal the same night as the first opportunity for the public to examine and weigh in on the proposal. In the interest of transparency and accountability the Council would do well to delay this vote till the public has had ample time to review and digest the changes being proposed.