Downtown Chapel Hill isn’t looking to roll up its sidewalks because some businesses have closed during the pandemic. Instead, it’s rolling them out.
To accommodate the social distancing that may be needed for a while, Chapel Hill’s Town Council approved temporarily closing a lane on both sides of West Franklin Street and dedicating them solely for foot traffic.
The extra space gives restaurants more room for outdoor dining at a time when the state has severely reduced indoor dining, and it gives pedestrians a path around people eating outdoors.
Barriers were erected in early August. Town staff plan to reassess in mid-September and decide how long the lanes will remain closed to motorists.
Laura Selmer, Chapel Hill’s economic development specialist, said many restaurants were taking advantage of the extra room to expand their existing sidewalk seating or implement outdoor dining for the first time. Since Gov. Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD) invoked restrictions on indoor dining in restaurants in March, the town has received at least six new sidewalk-dining applications from Franklin Street businesses, Selmer said.
A year earlier, the town removed some restrictions on sidewalk dining to make the option more attractive to business owners. People eating outside improves the vibrancy of the commercial district, according to Chapel Hill’s downtown work plan. During the pandemic restrictions, the town waived the $100 permit application fee.
But business owners still found the application process to be arduous. Applicants had to submit photos of the sidewalk dining area from multiple angles and a shot of their occupancy card, a sketch of the proposed seating plan, dimensions and materials of the tables and chairs, letters of support from neighboring businesses, copies of all permits and licenses issued to them, and proof of liability insurance.
Pho Happiness powered through the process and now has two tables set up on the sidewalk in front of 508 W. Franklin St. to supplement its takeout service.
“We’re not doing any dine-in at the moment to be extra safe,” said server Ian Loebs. “We’re relying on those two tables for anyone who wants to eat here. Our main concern is the health and safety of customers. The more space the better with the virus.”
Talulla’s, down the block at 456 W. Franklin, already had a sidewalk dining permit before COVID-19 hit. The pedestrian lane enabled Jana Gurbuzer to create an even better ambiance for her customers. She invested in a few more tables and chairs and some materials to build a fence that demarcates the outdoor dining space.
“We have regular customers who don’t want to dine inside, and they didn’t want to sit outside because people were walking by,” she said. “Now with the [pedestrian lane], people won’t be walking through where customers are eating.
“We’re following all the guidelines we need to do for COVID-19. I hope people feel safe to dine in or outside. We’re trying our best to stay in business.”
But pedestrians’ and outdoor diners’ gain is motorists’ loss. Reducing travel lanes for cars to one lane in each direction meant giving up turn lanes. Traffic backs up when a driver makes a right turn from Franklin Street onto Columbia or a left turn onto Mallette Street or into the parking lot that serves several restaurants at 306 W. Franklin.
“Our staff are currently working on modifications to improve traffic flow and wait times at the intersection,” Selmer wrote in an email. “Staff will continue to monitor traffic impacts for the duration of the project and review any comments from businesses and the public.”
Meanwhile, another accommodation is being added to Franklin Street that will help motorists — free parking spaces for picking up takeout and curbside delivery orders from restaurants or other retailers. The car-sized rectangles painted parallel to the sidewalks are light blue with bold, black “To Go Pickup” lettering. It’s part of the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership’s “Experience Downtown Chapel Hill” program to help attract more customers and stimulate the economy during the pandemic.
— Nancy E. Oates