Outdoor dining

DOWNTOWN TENT REVERSAL - The Select Board last night acknowledged it acted too swiftly last month on an emergency application from Venetian Moon owner Lisa Cavallo to erect an outdoor dining enclosure (shown above) in public parking spaces along Main St. The local merchant, who erected the semi-permanent structure at great expense in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, now faces a likely order to remove the tent. (Bob Holmes Photo)

READING – The tent is coming down. Beyond that, little is certain.

The Select Board spent more than two hours Monday night discussing how to undo what just a month ago seemed like a great idea. That idea was allowing Venetian Moon to put up a 58-seat tent on the cobbled stone parking area for outdoor dining. The goal was to help a local restaurant still dealing with a health pandemic to get back on its feet. But a noble goal the board approved on June 16 has turned into a major headache for town officials.

“A lot of people are upset on both sides,” said board member Carlo Bacci.

The issue is parking. By closing off the cobblestone parking area, the town unleashed a flurry of complaints from area businesses. It was often unpleasant and left the board acknowledging it had acted too quickly in approving the tent.

As a result of the complaints, the board proposed that the tent comes down Aug. 3 and that action will be in the form of a motion at next Tuesday’s meeting:

“Move to amend the license granted to Venetian Moon for outdoor dining to remove the current tent configuration effective on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020 at 12:01 a.m.”

The plan/hope is to replace the tent with two smaller options. The first is a parklet on Woburn Street, basically taking over the four parking spots from the Tin Bucket up to the Venetian Moon. It would have tables, chairs and umbrellas, but no tents. The second dining area would start in the current handicapped parking spot in front of the restaurant and extend toward CVS. How far it would extend and how many parking spots it would take up is another question.

By doing this, the cobblestone area would be open to traffic and some of the parking spots other downtown businesses lost because of the tent would be restored.

There are a number of issues with this plan, starting with the fact no one has talked to Venetian Moon owner Lisa Cavallo. Would Cavallo have any interest in replacing the tent with seating on Woburn Street as well as a few spots in front of her restaurant? And if yes, how many spaces would she need to replace the 58 seats currently inside the tent.

“I want to give Venetian Moon as much space as we can give them,” said Bacci.

There were other issues.

The board, led by Vanessa Alvarado, pushed for town staff to meet with Cavallo along with area businesses to discuss the potential plan. But with their next meeting a week away, it leaves little time for town officials to do the necessary work.

“My calendar is already full for Wednesday and Thursday,” said Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios.

“Staff will do what they can but staff can’t make a decision for Lisa,” said Town Manager Bob LeLacheur.

There’s also the MBTA bus stop opposite Venetian Moon. There’s some thought the MBTA would agree to what Delios called a “temporary relocation” of the bus stop, thus giving Venetian Moon more space. But as the discussion rolled on, Delios asked, “Should I waste my time or not waste my time with the MBTA?”

The angled parking inside the parking area is also a question. With the road restored along with a revised dining area, was there room for angled parking on both sides and would public safety officials sign off on it?

Since Tuesday, June 30, the town has sought out the opinions of 23 businesses in the downtown area, a version of which will happen again starting Tuesday. They’ve either been emailed, participated in a zoom call or in the town’s door-to-door effort. The businesses listed numerous issues with closing the parking lot so that the Venetian Moon could have outside dining.

There was frustration that parking was unavailable even when the restaurant was closed during the day. As for when the tent should come down, opinions varies from this month to the end of September. There were also concerns with communication from the town. The current Select Board policy put communication with abutters in the hands of the applicant. At the end of last night’s meeting that was changed by a 5-0 vote of the board to put the responsibility on the town rather than the applicant.

One look at the emails included in the Select Board packet for Monday’s meeting would make you think the town is being overrun with sick and injured dogs/cats. Much of that is because the owner of Middlesex Animal Hospital, Dr. Jane Harrison, encouraged her customers to contact the town. She also spoke during public comment Monday.

“Contrary to many people’s perverted thoughts, I don’t wish my neighbors to go out of business,” said Harrison. “But I do expect them to respect my business needs, along with my clients.”

Emailers against the tent included Mary Hagstrom, David Kruh, Jane Walsh, Dianne Kennedy, Carol Johnson, Robert Denault, David Burke, Ann Wildfong, Joan and Eileen DeGregorio, Jack and Alice Oram, Michelle Higginson, Frederick Van Magness, Heather Cruickshanks, Bill and Norma Lucey, Dr. Jane Harrison, Peter Simms, Mary Ann Terpenny, April Robicheau, Mary Ellen O’Neill, Corri Ogburn, Lynda Zarrow, Kelly Bedingfield, Eileen O’Shea, Debbie Makrys, Elizabeth Carrozza, James and Michelle Steinkrauss, Dennis Ebacher, Kendra Burube, Deborah Harris, Susan Lorenti, Jackie Cope, Julie Orsillo, Lauren D’Apice, Tara Boivin, Lauren Smith, Mary Hagstrom, Linda Simard, Nick Boivin, Jim Turner, Kathi Rossi-Roh, Maria Lloyd, Scott Ross, Jeff Peters, Mary Mehringer, Christina Hornsby, Corin Gigler, Darlene Porter, Kurt Habel, Rochelle and Dan Webb, My Dao, Marc and Antonella of Nella’s Pizza, and Janet Patterson, owner/manager of five nearby properties.

Emailers for the tent is a far shorter list. Just six, with Julie Centrella, owner of Aine’s Boutique, Amy Collins, owner of Goodhearts, Kiara Mooney, owner of Kiara Mooney Salon and Spa, and John Magazzu owner of RE/Max, and Liliana and Paul Magee, owners of Ruff ‘n Ready.

It’s also clear, the Venetian Moon owner is running out of patience.

“These meetings have become useless and it went from attacking Venetian to the worst attack on “Lisa” yesterday,” said Cavallo after participating in the July 2 Zoom call with other business owners. “It seemed to have turned into “well my business is suffering due to Covid, why shouldn’t hers be too? Why are you helping her?”

Her email, the longest of the bunch, continued.

“We seem to have completely lost focus on how great this has been for the downtown and how many people this tent has served, many of which was their first outing in months … It had become a grudge match that I am not willing to participate in anymore. Nothing I offer is acceptable to them unless I take the tent down.”

That tent is coming down. Whether or not Cavallo is willing/able to replace it with the plan discussed Monday night is another question.

Town Assessor Victor Santaniello appeared before the board to update them on the Reading Senior Circuit Breaker tax relief program. This tax year 186 senior applied for the tax exemption with 182 approved. In 2019, the number was 187 with 176 granted. In 2018, 194 residents applied for the Reading Senior Discount and 183 were granted. The program gives seniors that meet the qualifications a tax break while shifting that money to Reading homeowners. Santaniello will appear before the board on Sept. 22 for discussion and approval of next year’s senior tax break.

The board also discussed the Town Manager review and goals with the need to have them completed by September.

The board again spent many minutes discussing the minutes before again pushing them to a future meeting. They also discussed their virtual retreat next week with one of the planned topics being how to streamline their meetings. After four hours Monday night, the topic seemed appropriate.

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