After rave reviews late last summer from restaurant and bar owners as well as residents, Brookfield will once again close down roughly the south half of the 3700 block of Grand Boulevard — perhaps as early as Memorial Day weekend — on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays this summer to accommodate more outdoor food and drink service.
During an hour-long meeting Monday morning at the Brookfield Village Hall, business owners – even those whose customers were inconvenienced by the weekend shutdowns last year – said they were on board with extending the outdoor service expansion, implemented late last July to counter the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on bars and restaurants.
“We would not have survived if you guys did not do that last year,” said Stathi Giafis, co-owner of Little Owl Social Pub at 3747 Grand Blvd., who advocated for repeating the weekend closure of Grand Boulevard this year. “It kind of made it like an event, like a town square.”
Brookfield Village Manager Timothy Wiberg presided over the meeting, which he called after getting input on Feb. 22 from elected officials about extending the street closure another year.
Wiberg said he invited all of the street’s business owners to the meeting to lay out three options for expanded outdoor dining. Representatives from just six Grand Boulevard businesses attended the meeting, including two representing non-food/drink establishments.
A straw poll of those in attendance indicated wide support for closing the street to traffic Friday through Sunday. Wiberg also proposed two options that would not have shut down the street to traffic, leaving the driving lanes open while leaving either all or some of the on-street parking spaces for outdoor tables.
In those options, the eating areas would have been protected by jersey barriers that would have remained in place throughout the summer months. Klaryse Ellis of Christopher Mark Fine Flowers said she preferred a version of that plan which would have limited the barricaded parking spaces to the ones outside the establishments themselves.
“During the day, our patrons have nowhere to park,” Ellis said, adding she was concerned about the shop’s older clientele who aren’t so mobile. She did admit that the street closure last summer brought other benefits.
“I like the sense of community, of people being able to get together, of children being able to move freely about,” Ellis said. “It’s really an improvement to how things used to be as far as community and people getting together and improving on what we have.”
Restaurant and bar owners along the south half of the block were not in favor of simply barricading parking spaces, agreeing with Ellis about the family-friendly, open aspect that comes with closing the street completely to traffic.
In addition, they worried that cars backed up while waiting for trains to clear the Prairie Avenue crossing would be unappealing for outdoor diners sitting at tables next to them.
“[Diners] don’t have to worry about traffic, they don’t have to worry about cars going by,” said Mike DiGiovanni, manager of Sebastian’s Whiskey and Ale House at 8900 Fairview Ave. at the corner of Fairview Avenue and Grand Boulevard. “If we have barricades and someone is eating and the train comes and they have to stop, there’s fumes while they’re eating. So, we have to look at that, too, because we’re not going to be able to have tables by the barricades.”
If COVID-19 positivity rates and case numbers continue to fall as the state and county roll out more vaccines to the public, the village is also pondering erecting a stage for live entertainment once a month, either at the south end of the block or mid-block.
Tentatively, officials are looking at setting up the stage one Saturday a month between June and September, possibly hosting family entertainment in the morning and afternoon with a concert at night.
Exactly where the stage will be located hasn’t been settled – and it could be moot if the state’s COVID-19 mitigations don’t change – but some elected officials believed mid-block might be better in order to reduce noise from trains immediately behind the stage.
Linda Sokol Francis, who does not have a business on Grand Boulevard but is a Brookfield business owner, suggested perhaps moving the concert night to midweek, though that would add another layer of setup and takedown of barriers once a month.
The village does not want to have concerts on Friday night because that would compete with the Brookfield Parks and Recreation Department’s summer concert series in Kiwanis Park, which it hopes to reinstate in 2021 after all of last year’s shows were cancelled due to the pandemic.
As for making up for the lost parking spaces on the south end of Grand Boulevard on the weekends, the village will continue to allow customers to park in the commuters spots along the railroad tracks on Brookfield Avenue.
While it means a bit of a walk, there is plenty of parking there, said Wiberg.
“I’d like to get more people to use those spots,” Wiberg said.
Giafis said he was skeptical at first last year about the loss of the parking on Grand Boulevard, but said he didn’t hear any complaints from his customers. He suggested the village do more to advertise the location of the commuter parking spaces.
While the move to close down Grand Boulevard last year was spurred by an impulse to help bars and restaurants struggling to keep their doors open during a pandemic, its popularity has forced officials to think about making the practice permanent.
The intention for 2021, even if the state moves to fully open later this year, is to extend the expanded outdoor dining through September, at least.
“From our perspective, this is going to be there all summer long,” Wiberg said.