Bethesda street closures are a good but imperfect solution, restaurateurs say
‘Streetery’ layout will start Wednesday
Some restaurant owners in downtown Bethesda say a plan to close streets to add more outdoor seating has advantages, even if it isn’t a perfect solution.
Downtown Bethesda streets will be closed off to traffic for a large portion of each day, starting Wednesday, to help restaurants expand their seating.
Bethesda Urban Partnership worked with Montgomery County to create the arrangement, which is being called “Bethesda Streetery.”
Every day, the Streetery will be in effect from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. During those times, the following roads will be closed:
- Norfolk Avenue, between St. Elmo and Cordell avenues
- Norfolk Avenue, between Cordell and Del Ray avenues
- Woodmont Avenue, between Elm Street and Bethesda Avenue
Cordell Avenue, between the parking garage near Old Georgetown Road and Triangle Towers, will be closed from 4 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday
The Bethesda Streetery will have open seating. Customers may use the tables and chairs after picking up food at a local restaurant.
Under Montgomery County’s phase 1 reopening from coronavirus restrictions, which began last week, restaurants are allowed to offer outdoor sit-down service. Since March, under an executive order by Gov. Larry Hogan, restaurants only were permitted to serve through takeout and delivery.
Stephanie Coppula, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, said in an interview Monday morning that there won’t be any wait staff from the restaurants serving the tables.
“You are picking up your food and then bringing it to the table,” she said.
Coppula said the BUP staff will remove trash, then disinfect the surfaces.
“We’ll have trash and recycling receptacles throughout the Streetery. We would ask that you would remove trash and recycling. And then we would take care of disinfecting the tables,” she said.
The tables will be three-foot round tables with four chairs each, Coppula said.
Asked why there were fewer street closures in the Bethesda Row area on the south side of downtown, Coppula said the BUP staff did a walk through of the area with county officials to determine the best areas to close. Based on traffic patterns, she said, closing more streets in Woodmont Triangle made the most sense.
“So there is only one block in Bethesda Row that’s closed, but that’s a very long block,” she said.
“It’s a pretty equivalent amount of space, because the blocks on Norfolk Avenue are much smaller than the block on Woodmont Avenue that runs between Bethesda Avenue and Elm Street.”
Roberto Pietrobono, who owns Olazzo, Alatri Bros and Gringos & Mariachis in Bethesda, had been part of the early discussions with BUP on the Streetery idea. Initially there “could be some trial and error” with the plan, he said in an interview last month.
“You hope people are patient and let things work out. There’s gonna be some issues with it, but I agree with it,” he said. “I’d hate for Bethesda Urban Partnership and the county to do us a favor and see negative feedback.”
Pietrobono, whose Bethesda restaurants are all on streets that will be closed, said adding that the outdoor seating plan also helps small restaurants that don’t have outdoor seating.
“This is a way to even that plateau. For the smaller restaurants, it is beneficial in that way,” he said.
But Mark Bucher, the owner of Medium Rare on Fairmont Avenue in Woodmont Triangle, said last month that the communal dining model isn’t practical for sit-down restaurants. The general seating concept, he said, is better suited for fast-casual restaurants.
“The biggest issue is a picnic table-style zone on a random street means you’re gonna grab pizza and you’re gonna sit there with soda and stuff’s gonna hit the ground. Trash is gonna pile up. Kids are gonna run around, and sit-down restaurants don’t get any bit of that business,” he said.
Bucher, who also has restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va., said D.C.’s reopening guidelines allow restaurants to serve meals in areas that have been converted into public space. But the rule is that customers must be able to order food and drinks from their seats and have their meals brought to them.
“That way you control interaction. You control trash. You control consumption,” he said.
A better approach, Bucher said, would be to open up the sidewalks and bag the parking meters so that the meter spaces become a public right-of-way.
Steve Fleishman, the owner of Bethesda Bagels in Bethesda Row, said on Monday that even though his street isn’t one of the ones being closed, he thinks the Streetery concept is a good idea.
“We’re carryout. We’ve had the luxury of still staying open during this whole thing. … As far as restaurants trying to work on carryout, not being able to serve the public is killer for them,” he said. “They’ve all lost a lot of money. Working with a smaller staff trying to do carryout doesn’t make a restaurant. You need full capacity. So [I support] anything we can do to help these guys.”
Fleishman said that the outdoor seating concept, while important in the short-term, is ultimately a temporary solution.
“I think it’s kind of a wait-and-see thing. These restaurants are just dying. I don’t know if putting a Band-Aid on it is gonna be the answer,” he said.
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