Fells Point broadens its “al fresco nights” program to offer outdoor dining during the pandemic – Greater Greater Washington

Fells Point’s outdoor dining in July 2020 by Brian Seel used with permission.

These are hard times for restaurants right now and Baltimore’s dining scene is no exception. It’s been just short of five months since Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ordered all restaurants closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and even with many places adding curbside delivery options and both Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Bernard “Jack” C. Young okaying the resumption of indoor dining, restaurant owners and workers are struggling as several restaurants, both old and new, call it quits.

Faced with such an existential threat to one of their neighborhood’s main sources of income, the residents and business owners of Fells Point are taking it to the streets, literally.

Thanks to the efforts of a local neighborhood group, a local architect, and Baltimore City Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-46), one of Baltimore’s oldest waterfront neighborhoods has taken its series of “Fells Point Al Fresco” nights from last summer and expanded it into a wildly successful outdoor dining program tailor-made for the age of coronavirus. And although not without its challenges, the success of Fells Point Al Fresco offers up several lessons on how to approach post-COVID dining and urban planning, not just in Fells Point and not even just in Baltimore City.

Fells Point in Baltimore, MD by the author.

Outdoor dining in Fells Point was not a new idea

Fells Point’s current outdoor dining program may have been instituted to deal with COVID-19 but its roots actually go back to 2015. That’s when Ron Furman, a local business owner who co-owns one of Fells Point’s mainstays, Max’s Tavern, approached Bryce Turner, an architect and planner who just so happens to live in the neighborhood and his firm, BCT Architects, and asked them to come up with a plan to help create a more pedestrian-friendly look for the Southeast Baltimore community along the lines of various European cities.

The “Fells Forward” Plan, as it was called when it was partially revived in 2020, was initially tabled by the group it was presented to, the Fell’s Point Task Force, and has largely stayed that way as planners and designers like Turner and the neighborhood group whose board he sits on, Fell’s Point Main Street (FPMS), have sought more community input.

But one of the key ideas from the plan, closing the 700 and 800 blocks of Broadway and the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Thames Street (pronounced “Thaymes”), two of the cobblestoned thoroughfares adjoining the Fells Point waterfront, to cars and reserving them for outdoor dining, did resurface in 2019 as a series of summer block parties.

The events were pretty well received, although the first night was postponed because of thunderstorms. The other issue with Fells Point Al Fresco, according to Lierman, was that the various administrative fees charged by Baltimore City actually meant it almost cost the restaurant owners more money to organize the events than they actually made off of those nights.

“It cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars for every restaurant who wanted to participate just for one temporary seating extension from the City Liquor Board,” Lierman said. “And then the cost of all the tables and chairs and making it look nice and any other fees.”

So even before the pandemic hit, Lierman successfully worked with her fellow 46th District Delegates, Luke Clippinger and Robbyn Lewis (both D-Baltimore City), during the abbreviated 2020 Maryland General Assembly legislative session to pass a bill requiring the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners to waive fees for any “Main Street” event attended by less than 750 people.

“We want to make it so that businesses can do al fresco dining and they don’t have to pay a bunch of money to do it,” Lierman said. “I think in some ways, that started setting the scene for the Liquor Board to understand that outdoor dining is something that people are interested in. It’s a Main Street event, we want to support our Main Streets.”

Streets closed to cars in Fells Point by the author.

How the coronavirus pandemic changed everything

When COVID-19 first made its presence known in Baltimore this past March, Fells Point was one of the first and deepest places to feel its effects. At the request of First District Councilmember Zeke Cohen, who represents Fells Point and most of its surrounding neighborhoods on the Baltimore City Council, eight of Fells Point’s most prominent restaurants closed their doors to the public a full day before Hogan issued his executive order suspending indoor dining in Maryland.

And for most of the time since the Maryland Department of Health began tracking and releasing such data, Fells Point’s ZIP code, 21224, has reported more COVID-19 cases than almost any other ZIP code in Maryland (As of this writing, it was ranked third in the state with over 1,800 cases). Tourism, business trips, and foot or car traffic to Fells Point from nearby business executives, bar patrons, and restaurant customers plummeted as offices closed and it became clear how poorly suited most of the city’s indoor dining was to social distancing.

“I think it just became apparent many of the restaurants in Baltimore are small,” Lierman said. “They’re the size of townhomes or slightly larger. Indoor dining was not going to be a safe option for staff or guests for quite some time.”

Simultaneously, there were several factors that made the return of Fells Point Al Fresco a no-brainer from the perspectives of local organizations and business groups like the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, planners and architects like Turner, and local elected officials like Lierman and Cohen alike.

As FPMS Executive Director Maureen Sweeney Smith pointed out, most of Fells Point was laid out by Eastern European immigrants who favored communal spaces and an appealingly unobstructed view of Baltimore’s waterfront. Broadway itself is a dead-end street with no light rail, subway, or even bus lines that would be affected by road closures, although it’s still near enough to each mode of transit to be readily accessible for most people.

Most of the nearest parking garages are actually located to the west of the neighborhood, closer to Harbor East, and the cobblestone paving has long been the subject of complaints from numerous drivers. With so many businesses and offices either closed or greatly reduced in their capacity, there’s less of a need for street parking.

The streets themselves are relatively wide, enough so to be able to accommodate outdoor dining. And at the same time, closing the streets could still preserve the often narrow sidewalks for ADA access and strollers. “Certainly in Fells Point, if Thames Street opened for pedestrians, some can walk there,” Lierman noted, “but it’s very hard to push a stroller or a wheelchair on Belgian block.”

The actual implementation of the latest edition of Fells Point Al Fresco has been relatively straightforward thanks to a large degree of cooperation between FPMS, which has helped assist 25 neighborhood businesses in opening for outdoor dining, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which helped provide much of the funding and logistics for the program, Lierman and Cohen who both helped coordinate with various Baltimore City agencies like the Liquor Board and Police, Fire, Health, and Transportation Departments, and Turner’s rebranded and expanded firm, BCT Design Group.

Most of the current plan came together in May, not quite halfway through June, FPMS voted to support it, and by the middle of July, the street closures necessary to make the plan a reality were fully in place.

The specific road closures for the program were selected primarily based on restaurant clusters and residential access to side streets. From 4 pm to 6 am each day, Thames Street is closed from the southbound lane of Broadway to the west side of the Sagamore Pendry Hotel (better known as the police HQ on the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets) and the northbound lane of South Broadway is closed between Thames and Lancaster Streets.

Turner tried to incorporate elements of recycling and composting into the plan because of the limitations the pandemic has placed on normally routine aspects of dining like silverware, which can’t be washed as easily.

“We tried to be really comprehensive with it and we probably got out over our skis a little bit,” Turner said. “So we ended up trying just to start small and we developed a couple of design concepts for a parklet.” BCT usually designs a parklet for Baltimore’s Park(ing) Day so Turner was no stranger to the concept.

“We decided the best thing to do was to build a prototype to just show other people what it could be like and let them mimic that or take it from there and we would help them with resources,” Turner said. “So our architecture firm was able to find some really great previously used crating materials and pallets that made for great flower bins and wire spools. The thought was it’s gotta be inexpensive but because Fells Point is pretty bohemian anyway, it would kind of fit in.”

The reception to Fells Point Al Fresco has been mostly positive, at least so far. There’ve been a few complaints from retail businesses concerned the street closures are hurting their customer traffic. And Smith did have a few other concerns on FPMS’ behalf. “We feel some of the closures seemed unfair,” she said. “For instance, Target was open, but our small businesses were not allowed to open. This didn’t make sense to retailers. Also, short notice on re-openings did not give restaurants time to place orders. More notice would be nice.”

But for the most part, Fells Point Al Fresco has been extremely successful at a crucial time for the neighborhood and the city, given the indefinite state of the pandemic. “I

do not think there is going to be a “return to normal” any time soon,” Smith said. We need to rethink everything. For instance, Fell’s Point restaurants enjoyed a robust lunch trade from

nearby high rises such as Morgan Stanley and Exelon. These firms are cutting back to

15-20% of the workforce coming into the building on any given day. We need to attract new lunch crowds. Even when restrictions are lifted, we think people will feel safer outside for a while.”

Cohen was likewise effusive in his praise for Fells Point Al Fresco’s strong start. “The Al Fresco dining in Fells Point provides an opportunity for us to reimagine our streetscape in Baltimore,” he said. “My hope is that we truly embrace this human-centered experiment which gives the street back to the people.”

Dining al fresco in July by Brian Seel used with permission.

Other neighborhoods follow Fells Point’s lead

While Fells Point was one of the first neighborhoods to embrace outdoor dining so enthusiastically once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, its success with al fresco has made sure it will be far from the last. Within a month of the start of Fells Point Al Fresco, the neighborhood had been joined by a similar program in Federal Hill, a neighborhood just southwest of the Inner Harbor similarly renowned for its restaurants and nightlife.

The Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, Pigtown, Fells Point’s eastern neighbor, Canton, and the neighborhood on the other side of the Inner Harbor, Little Italy, also implemented some form of al fresco dining.

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore launched a traveling “pop-up” outdoor dining program late last month in Charles Village, a neighborhood in the north-central part of the city closer to Johns Hopkins University, and outdoor dining programs have also sprung up in Baltimore’s suburbs, specifically Towson, the seat of Baltimore County, and Bel Air, the seat of Harford County.

A little closer to home, Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived and died, has also expressed interest in trying to create its own outdoor dining program, something Turner said he and several other local architects are happy to give advice on.

“Half of it’s just communication and lack of awareness about some of the things you can do,” Turner said. “Because this is a very serious challenge for restaurateurs, who stand the possibility of losing their business. Fortunately, there are some really great organizations we have in Baltimore like the Neighborhood Design Center, which is made up of architects and others who want to help, and they do a lot of pro bono work the same way attorneys and others do. So I think other neighborhoods just kind of need to get creative and think about what styles of materials that they can use and then putting them together in a simple way that can speak to their kind of brand.”

Perhaps the most telling testament to the success of Fells Point’s outdoor dining program and why it’s still needed might be what happened last week. Against the advice of several local health experts, Mayor Young announced last Thursday that he was lifting his two-week ban on indoor dining in Baltimore City starting the following night. Less than 24 hours later, at least seven of Fells Point’s restaurants held a press conference to say essentially “thanks but no thanks.”

Alex Holt is a New York state native, Maryland transplant, and freelance writer. He lives in Mt. Washington in Baltimore and enjoys geeking out about all things transit, sports, politics, and comics, not necessarily in that order.

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