Second thoughts

DOWNTOWN TENT REGRET - Some downtown merchants are now experiencing a little buyer’s remorse after initially supporting the Venetian Moon’s prososal earlier this month to erect a new tent enclosure (above) within a public parking area in downtown Reading. Some abutting business owners, eager to help a fellow neighbor establish the outdoor dining area, say they had no idea the special arrangement could last for months. (Photo by Bob Homes)

READING - Remember the feel-good story of outdoor dining and the Venetian Moon? Apparently not everyone agrees with the loss of parking in return for a pomegranate martini.

During public comment at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, several business owners protested the 58-seat tent approved June 16 that turned the cobble-stone downtown parking lot into outdoor dining for the Venetian Moon. It started with Dr. Jane Harrison, owner of the nearby Middlesex Animal Hospital.

“We were never asked to participate in any discussion of this proposal, especially one that so negatively affected our businesses,” said Harrison. “It was a one-sided conversation with Venetian Moon to promote their outdoor dining with little regard for others.”

Harrison said her business was already challenged, working at 50 percent capacity with reduced hours. All appointments had been canceled except for those that required urgent care. Curb-side service was recently restored, only to have the parking blocked off. The loss of handicapped parking also impacted her business.

“Why do their diners get priority over our customers,” she asked. “The tent needs to come down and parking lot re-opened.”

Others agreed.

“This is ridiculous that you could close a parking lot without telling adjoining businesses,” said Peter Simms of Simms Jewelers. “How do you expect us to do business?”

“There was no communication with any of it. It came as a shock,” said Kevin O’Connor, owner of Reading Trophy. “We found out the day before. Overall, I was very disappointed with the town.”

May Mu of Family Dental had no idea the tent was going up. And with her back door closed because of Covid-19-related regulations, patients hoping to park in front no longer can.

“Closing the parking space for the whole day creates hardships,” said Mu. “It’s not fair that the town picked one business over the others.”

It was not all one-sided. Julie Centrella of Aine’s Boutique, Chris DeCloux of Café Nero, Kayla Iacopucci of Kaylash, and John Magazzu of RE/MAX all wrote letters in support of Venetian Moon.

According to the written Select Board policy, it was up to Venetian Moon owner Lisa Cavallo to tell her neighbors that she wanted to close the parking lot and put up a tent.

“The onus was on the applicant to do that communication,” said Town Manager Bob LeLachuer. “I think what we’ve clearly seen is that the communication is more important than to just leave it to the applicant and that the town should do more. That’s a fairly simple thing to change. I think communication has certainly been an issue in this case.”

After hearing the frustration of her business neighbors, it was Venetian Moon owner Lisa Cavallo’s turn.

“I want to apologize to everybody. I would never intentionally do anything to hurt any businesses,” said Cavallo, who said she did everything the town asked prior to the tent going up. “Whatever I can do to make this better I am totally willing.”

Cavallo thought that parking in the back lot would be enough given the current business restrictions. She also added that it’s been tough for her restaurant.

“People aren’t ready to go indoors yet … I do care about pets, I do care about the elderly, I do care about the handicapped. Very much. When we all talked about this originally it was something that was going to be for the good of everybody. This isn’t an easy time for anyone. Let me tell you, I pay $13,000 in rent. That’s a lot of money and it’s hard to make ends meet.

“On another note, I have hired 32 employees. I’ve got them off unemployment, they’re very eager, they’re so happy. Everyone is getting back to work. I mean, this is good for everybody.”

Cavallo has heard what people have been saying.

“It’s hard to get all this backlash as a business when all I do is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into making this happen. For me and all of my staff it’s really hard. I think a lot of customers really do appreciate coming back out and being normal again. But it’s been really heart wrenching the things that people have been saying that this has been all me, it’s self-serving. That’s just not who I am.”

Board member Anne Landry said she left the June 16 meeting feeling abutters were aware of the tent and were ok with it. Others on the board agreed more questions should have been asked that night.

“Speed was actually our enemy in this case,” said Landry of the approval process that moved far quicker than the days before Covid-19.

LeLacheur suggested to the board that their policy be adjusted to make communication the town’s responsibility. He also suggested the possible addition of extra handicapped parking and potentially limiting the end date of the outdoor dining license. Also, opening the end of the lot away from the tent during the day was discussed, an idea that public safety officials said isn’t ideal.

“I don’t think there’s a perfect solution,” said chair Mark Dockser.

At the board’s suggestion, town officials have been instructed to talk with abutters, landlords, and even customers who use the parking lot. The board then added a meeting July 13th to discuss the parking situation.

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