When it comes to this town, I’ve never been one to say something can’t be done. In my opinion, we can have just about anything we want, as long as we’re willing to do the work and pay the price. One reason Narberth has been so special over the years is a spirit of volunteerism that lets us not only fill our all-volunteer elected government and dozens of official committee positions, but also, host so many annual events that we are the envy of communities many times our size.
When we face a challenge, like deciding how to best support a restaurant/business community through an era of social distancing, getting people’s ideas is an important first step. But, as with most projects, ideas are the easy part. Literally everyone has ideas. The really challenging steps come next. I encourage everyone here to participate in these next steps where we compare ideas, weigh the pros and cons, estimate costs, consider unintended consequences, fund and execute the plan, then observe the results and revise accordingly.
The Borough Manager and his staff, the police chief, the mayor, Borough Council members, business owners and a number of citizen volunteers started these discussions on this topic many weeks ago. To help move the current discussion along, it might be helpful for me to recap where we are, lay out a couple of facts, and present some unanswered questions.
Where are we now: To date, we’ve seen a system of accommodations on a case-by-case basis. For instance, McSheas’s has been given permission to use a number of Borough parking lot spaces for a set time each day, while the Pub and The Greeks have been given signage to limit sidewalk traffic, and help pedestrians distance from diners during dinner hours. This patchwork system is a start, but certainly leaves tons of room for improvement.
The business community rarely speaks with one mind, and it's not uncommon for their preferences to be diametrically opposed. The same goes for the other stakeholders in this process, including non-restaurant business owners, downtown apartment residents, local pedestrians who use the sidewalks, bike riders and vehicle drivers, and public transportations riders. So we need to be careful not to generalize and say that “everyone” wants something or another - that’s almost never the case.
Some restaurants want as much outdoor seating as they can get to make up for the limited indoor capacity. Those restaurants still need street access for takeout/curbside pickup and delivery. Some restaurants prefer to stick exclusively with the takeout/delivery model and have chosen not to start onsite dining. Any solution that affects the street and parking spaces in front of restaurants must take all of the stakeholder business models into consideration.
Solutions involving public spaces may not suit the needs of businesses. For instance, the Borough parking lot behind McShea’s solves some of McShea’s needs, but isn’t an attractive option to other non-contiguous restaurants. The Commerce Way Alley, also owned by the Borough, was also not a desired option for any of the businesses we talked to.
Parking in a small town is always a hot-button issue. Being able to park three blocks from your destination may seem like good fortune in downtown Philadelphia, but that same driver may be irritated if they can’t park directly in front of the liquor store. We don’t need to take any solutions off the table, but we have to be aware that any solution which takes away parking spaces will make some stakeholders unhappy.
In 2020, we’ve canceled more events than we’ve held. In a normal year, like 2019, we closed down the first downtown block of Haverford Avenue, and the first block of Forrest on three Sundays - twice for Music Festivals and once for the Dickens Fest. We also closed Station Circle for a couple of hours for Santa in December, and for the young Dance Xpress dancers in May. We closed a small part of Forrest Ave for the Leprechaun Hunt, The Witch Hunt, and the Narbark Dog Parade. Every time we close the street, organizers meet first with the police chief and the director of public works to discuss safety, traffic, trash collection, Borough equipment, and logistics. If Haverford Ave needs to be closed, then Borough Office arranges a temporary detour with SEPTA. For large gatherings, the chief arranges for trucks to block streets, extra officers, ambulance coverage, and sometimes, additional police manpower from SEPTA.
Any plan that changes normal traffic patterns, or puts pedestrians or diners into space normally reserved for cars, must be run past the mayor and the police chief, who are tasked with public safety here in the Borough.
Any plan that uses parking spaces, in addition to recognizing the non-restaurant stakeholders, needs to address the safety issues of putting pedestrians/diners at increased risk. Plans that close Haverford Ave need to address the lack of options (especially with the bridge down) to get from East to West when Haverford is closed.
Any plan that uses parking spaces, in addition to addressing the safety issues, needs to consider a few details, including hours of operation, whether the barriers are permanent or temporary, installation resources (daily set-up and break-down if temporary), and the needs of other stakeholders.
Any plan that creates a “food court”, that is not contiguous with some or all of the restaurants it serves (parking lots, alleys, streets, station circle) needs to take into consideration the inherent risks of creating a gathering spot in a time where social distancing is still required. Manpower is our most expensive resource, and our police can only be in so many places at one time. How will the “food court” area be set up and broken down, kept clean, supervised, and what will happen if people refuse to follow state guidelines?
Every challenge can be met if we’re willing to invest the resources. It may be that we figure this one out. What we can’t do is just outright dismiss equitable rights of other stakeholders or ignore safety concerns because we are just more optimistic about safety. And no matter what we do, we won’t please everyone. But that’s OK. If we always fail to act because we don’t have 100% agreement, we’ll rarely get anything done.
Join the virtual meeting on Wednesday night if you have strong opinions and/or something to contribute to this discussion. See you there!
News compiled by Ed Ridgway, NBA president, and marketing consultant at Main Line PR