Downtown parklets

NEW DINING SPOT? The parallel parking spaces along Woburn Street’s approach to Main Street could soon house a so-called “parklet” with as many as 8 tables for Venetian Moon diners. The Select Board last night authorized the new outdoor seating arrangement after revoking the downtown restaurant’s original June license to erect a tent on a 25-space parking lot off of Main Street. (Bob Holmes Photo)

READING – You’re getting an extra two weeks to have that martini under the tent.

After a brief discussion Tuesday night, the Reading Select Board voted, 3-2, to allow the Venetian Moon tent to remain in place until Aug. 17. Last week the same group of five board members decided the tent would come down on Aug. 3. So, what changed?

After learning from Venetian Moon owner Lisa Cavallo that the tent lease went until Aug. 17, the board had a change of heart and gave her two extra weeks. Chairman Mark Dockser along with Vanessa Alvarado, and Carlo Bacci voted in favor of Aug. 17. Anne Landry and Karen Herrick were opposed. It was a vote that left a bad taste in the mouths of all five members.

“We’re making a lot of people upset either way,” said Bacci. “This is very difficult. We made a commitment, but was it the right decision? It’s gotten very divisive.”

Landry suggested Aug. 10, calling that date “an ugly but fair compromise” between Aug. 3 and the 17th.

“There’s no way we’re going to make everyone happy tonight,” said Herrick, who was opposed to the 17th because she felt the board should honor its June commitment to the Venetian Moon.

The board was torn between the commitment it gave to the Venetian Moon back on June 16 and other neighboring businesses upset by the loss of 25 parking spaces in the Main Street cobblestone lot. What seemed like a great move by town officials instead turned into a nasty debate. Outdoor dining became outdoor whining in just a few summer days.

The emails, including 30 this week in the Select Board’s packet, were one sign of the division. Another sign was more obvious, the one in the window of the Middlesex Animal Hospital that said, “Shame on Venetian Moon for Taking Our Parking.”

“I’m sad that it’s become a bit more of a battle of letters and things like that,” said Dockser. “I wish that wasn’t the case.”

But one thing still wasn’t clear Tuesday night. Instead of the tent, would Cavallo agree with the plans to substitute two parklets with 16 tables and seating for 72 diners. The town had shown her plans for both Woburn Street and a section of the cobblestone lot, each with eight tables for 36 diners. But Cavallo never showed her cards. Instead, she listed the concerns of the new set-up. Those concerns included the need for new outdoor furniture and the fact Woburn Street is on a hill and not conducive for tables and chairs.

“Our goal was to have an indication of interest in the parklet concept. We don’t have an indication of interest,” said Dockser. “We have neither a yes or no … If our mission was to say ‘the parklets are here,’ we can’t say that’s going to happen.”

What the board does have is an indication of frustration, which was loud and clear in a July 15 email to the board.

“Had I known the immense and constant stress I would have to deal with, I would have just put this restaurant up for sale,” said Cavallo.

With Aug, 3, 10, and 17 on the table, the board settled on the 17th, matching the lease of the tent with the following motion:

Move that (1) pursuant to section 3.9.2 of the Board’s Policies, the Board revoke Venetian Moon’s Outdoor Dining License issued on June 17, 2020, effective upon execution of a new license agreement for Outdoor Dining with the Town Manager, or August 17, 2020, 12:01 a.m., whichever comes first; and, (2) pursuant to Section 3.9 of the Board’s Policies, issue a new Outdoor Dining License to Venetian Moon, subject to execution of a license agreement with the Town Manager, provided, however, that such new license shall expire on November 30, 2020 per Select Board policy.

The 3-2 vote means the tent is coming down Aug. 17. Will there be parklets in its place? That’s a story for another day.

The tent vote wasn’t the only item on the board’s agenda.

Kerry Dunnell, the newest member of the Board of Health (BOH), made her first appearance before the Select Board with a number of updates, including one on voting by mail. Reading residents have recently received applications for voting by mail this fall and Dunnell and the BOH are big supporters.

“We strongly encourage voters to vote by mail,” said Dunnell. “We’re encouraging folks to use that option.”

Combined with early voting, the town hopes up to 70 percent of residents vote before the Sept. 1 primary. Later in the meeting, the board approved the addition of Dr. Richard Lopez as an associate member of the Board of Health. The Red Gate Lane resident is a retired physician.

A group from the Mass Department of Transportation joined the Zoom meeting with an update on the Trial Road Diet, a project that dates back to 2013. The project was initially scheduled to be finished in September but officials said with the health pandemic along with the emergency gas work done by National Grid the pilot will continue until next spring.

As you might expect, Bagel World was mentioned numerous times as an example of how the program has dealt with unexpected challenges. MassDOT has received more than 200 comments from residents and they said community feedback like that is crucial to the project. One bit of feedback came from Police Chief David Clark, who repeated that he’s not convinced the Road Diet will make Main Street safer. He added, “we’re not supportive of the project.”

In the coming months the MassDOT will continue with public outreach and continue collecting and analyzing data. Much of the data comes from traffic cameras along Main Street so be careful Reading. You’re being watched.

The board heard an update on Reading’s effort to become a designated Green Community. The program is sponsored by the Department of Energy Resources and if Reading meets the criteria it opens the possibility of grant money, access to technical assistance, lower municipal energy costs, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

After the three-hour meeting, the Select Board hopes to duplicate the time frame at their annual retreat Wednesday night. The board is then off until Aug. 11.

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