Newton Al Fresco, an initiative started in 2020 to bring outdoor dining to local restaurants, is returning on April 1. The project will allow restaurants to convert open spaces into outdoor dining areas decorated by local artists.
“Given … how much we love our favorite Newton restaurants, how important they are to village life and the difficult year they have endured, we are looking to build upon and expand our efforts to encourage outdoor dining, or as we call it, ‘Newton Al Fresco,’” Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in a statement on Feb. 25.
Newton Al Fresco allows restaurants to apply to use parking spaces in front of their businesses and adjacent buildings in order to increase the capacity of outdoor dining. With permission from the restaurants’ neighbors, restaurants can apply to expand dining into the parking lot.
To make the parking spaces large enough to accommodate more people, the project is working to expand the parking stall sizes on Union St. from eight to 12 feet.
They are also creating takeout spaces—designated spaces for customers to park for 15 minutes and pick up takeout—near the village centers and expanding seating for restaurants. These takeout spaces will also feature artistic elements to make the spaces more welcoming and appealing, Gloria Gavris, board chair of Newton Community Pride and BC ’83, said.
“We are also creating takeout spaces near the village centers which feature artistic elements and Union St. restaurants can expand wider which will create a different vibe for that area,” Nicole Freedman, Newton director of Transportation Planning, said. “It will feel like the street is more for outdoor dining and pedestrians and less for vehicles.”
Newton Al Fresco sites for this year will include Newton Centre Green, the Langley Lot, Rodney Barker Square, Elm St. Parking Lot, Captain Ryan Park, Austin St. Parking Lot, and Colletti-Magni Park, Fuller said.
Newton’s economic development and planning staff, restaurants on Union St., and Ward 6 Councilors Vicki Danberg, Alicia Bowman, and Brenda Noel have worked together to expand on-street dining on Union St. in Newton Centre, Fuller said.
“The tentative plan … preserves much of the on-street parking spaces, allows for continuous traffic flow, and carves out a few special expanded dining areas for restaurants,” Fuller said.
The plan proposes outdoor dining service areas by Thistle & Leek, House of Tandoor, Farmstead Table, and Baramor and takeout tables by Woops! Bakeshop, Café Sol Azteca, and Blackbird Donuts.
Police will begin “gentle enforcement” of the two hour parking limit on April 1, according to Fuller.
Communal dining spaces in many of the village centers will be improved, including painted bistro tables, umbrellas, and solar lighting, according to Fuller’s statement. Gavris said that the Cultural Affairs Office and Newton Community Pride, in conjunction with Newton City Council members, are working to include artistic elements created by local artists.
“Local artists were also hurting with lack of opportunity because of the COVID shut down,” Gavris said. “We hope that these elements create the opportunity for an artistic place that will last beyond the pandemic and create more of an ambiance around takeout public areas, resulting in increased foot traffic to local businesses and overall pedestrian engagement.”
Gavris said that Newton Community Pride serves as the “financial arm” of the Newton Al Fresco project. It commissions the artists participating in the project, while local businesses, such as Sherwin-Williams and National Lumbar, donate the art supplies. Last year, Swartz Ace Hardware, Sherwin-Williams Paint, and Bowman donated supplies.
Gavris did not release which artists are involved in the program at this time. She said that she hopes to hold a socially distant painting event over the next two to three weeks.
“The city has been terrific,” Gavris said. “Newton Community Pride played a small part on the creativity and artistic end, but the leadership in City Hall facilitated this program.”
Last year’s initiative helped businesses that lacked outdoor dining space to add seating utilizing jersey barriers. Paula Gannon, director of Newton Cultural Development, assembled a team of 23 artists to paint concrete jersey barriers for 10 Newton restaurants.
Using the barriers, Thistle & Leek, Sycamore, House of Tandoor, Baramor, Farmstead Table, Buttonwood, LeDu Thai Eatery, Cook Restaurant, Grape Leaf Mediterranean Grille, and George Howell Coffee were able to add outdoor seating to their restaurants last year.
“Almost a dozen agencies were involved, last year we had very little time, this year we had time to plan, proving a top-notch experience for customers, retailers, and businesses, it’s the new and improved 2021 version,” Freedman said.
The 2020 program only included expanding the dining through restaurants’ parking spaces, Freedman said.
“The restaurants were concerned and many city councilors like myself were also concerned,” Bowman said. “And so we started working hard last summer when we saw how this was going to roll out to try to get the administration to expand it.”
The 2021 Newton Al Fresco project involved a year-long coordination process with numerous departments, including the mayor’s office, Public Works, the Office of Cultural Development, economic and planning staff, police and fire departments, Special Services, and a legal team, according to Bowman.
Bowman drew from other areas in Massachusetts, such as Waltham and Hyannis, as models for the Al Fresco program and engaged with restaurants around Newton to adjust the program to their needs. This was a learning experience for everyone involved, Bowman said.
“I attended a lot of webinars that were being held by organizations across the country to try to educate people on what we could be doing, and the restaurants themselves, with the Chamber’s help, started a restaurant round-table, where they were sharing what they learned with each other and try[ing] to use their political pressure to promote the city to provide more help to restaurants,” Bowman said.
Bowman said representatives from the restaurants, who serve as active voices in the round table discussion, include Karen Masterson from Johnny’s Luncheonette, Arpit Patel from Baramor, and Karl O’Hara from O’Hara’s Food & Spirits.
Bowman expressed her disappointment in the initial rollout of the program and reluctance of the administration to do more for restaurants and the community.
“We gave the administration a hard time, we didn’t think they had gone far enough last year to support the restaurants, especially when you look at other communities,” Bowman said. “We would have liked to see something more and that is what we’re going to see this year.”
Bowman said she is ready to move forward with Newton Al Fresco and hopeful for its continuation in a post-COVID-19 era.
“I hope that it’s the beginning of us really rethinking how we use our streets and I see us working hard to think through how we utilize space,” said Bowman. “I’m excited to see the program expanding and I hope we learn and continue to move forward.”
Featured Image By Christina Lim / for The Heights