Dining in the streets? Arlington Heights' plan to help restaurants

Downtown Arlington Heights normally thrives on a bustling outdoor summer restaurant scene, but in the era of social distancing, dining alfresco may soon take on an added meaning.

The Northwest suburb is among the first municipalities in the area to propose a coordinated outdoor dining plan that - once the state allows restaurants to reopen - could help restaurateurs' bottom lines amid expected reduced capacity limits.

Called Arlington Alfresco, the plan calls for the closure of the main downtown thoroughfares Vail Avenue and Campbell Street to allow tables and chairs from more than a dozen eateries to encroach on the public right of way.

Village officials drew inspiration from big cities as far as Madrid and London to New York and Tampa, which are experimenting with street closures as their economies reopen and social distancing becomes the new normal.

Hinsdale recently announced it would close one of its downtown blocks to accommodate restaurants, while Algonquin on Tuesday introduced a villagewide plan to temporarily allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining along sidewalks, parking lots and other areas of the public right of way in coordination with Gov. J.B. Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan.

That's similar to Arlington Heights' villagewide approach, which couples its downtown initiative with a plan to allow dining within private parking lots of restaurants outside the downtown.

A rough sketch shows the concept for the Arlington Alfresco outdoor dining plan that would fence off the main downtown thoroughfares to allow restaurants to expand their seating arrangements. Courtesy of Village of Arlington Heights

In developing Arlington Alfresco, officials say they've been talking to local restaurant owners - 27 of whom participated in a videoconference call last week - who have suggested ways to expand dining outdoors in an effort to keep open their doors, despite the economic conditions.

"The restaurants will not be able to survive with limited capacity," Peter Sarantopoulos of La Tasca Tapas wrote in a letter to the village board. "The patrons will feel better by being outdoors. On top of that, Arlington Heights will be festive. We all need all the help we can get."

Anticipating greatly reduced indoor restaurant capacity under state rules, village officials plan to allow dining to expand past outdoor patios onto sidewalks and the streets, leaving room for 18-foot-wide pedestrian walkways that run down the middle of Vail and Campbell. The walkways would be available to emergency vehicles but closed to through traffic.

The village would install signage and fencing to block off the streets to traffic and delineate the pedestrian zone from outdoor dining spaces, while restaurants would be responsible for setting up their own areas with tables, chairs and landscaping. Tables would have to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.

A map shows the proposed downtown Arlington Heights street closures, curbside pickup areas and pedestrian entryways that are part of an on-street dining plan proposed by the village. Courtesy of Village of Arlington Heights

The plan also designates seven curbside food pickup spots on the perimeter of the on-street dining zone, while non-restaurant retailers would have space in front of their shops for potential outdoor displays or a place for customers to wait if it's too crowded inside.

Though more fine tuning is anticipated - like how to handle deliveries and garbage collection - village trustees endorsed the plan on Monday night so that businesses can hit the ground running when a reopening is authorized.

"There's a lot of people that have immune systems that may not be able to go out ... and there's just still a lot of fear out there over this virus," Trustee John Scaletta said. "I think that us trying to find a way to expand the seating of the restaurants and give additional room to some of our retailers to be able to put their wares outside is a good thing. This is forward thinking on staff's part and the village board's part."

For now, Naperville - home to another popular suburban downtown district - isn't making similar plans as Arlington Heights. With some 90 stores and restaurants operating curbside, Downtown Naperville Alliance Executive Director Katie Wood said closing streets would hurt their chances of success.

"When restaurants are able to reopen, this might be something we look at on a limited basis to help with spacing out of restaurant guests - either in streets or parking lots," Wood said. "Right now, however, the 'curb is king' and we rely on open roads and quick-turnover street parking spaces to enable curbside commerce to take place."

Officials in other towns like Mount Prospect and St. Charles said Tuesday they're taking a wait-and-see approach about whether to expand outdoor dining in their downtowns.

Under Pritzker's plan, restaurants and bars wouldn't be able to reopen until Phase 4, which might not be until July. The preliminary Arlington Heights Alfresco plan would be ready to go as soon as June, if allowed, and run through August or later with good weather, village officials said.

• Daily Herald staff writers Lauren Rohr, Marie Wilson and Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.

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