South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

City relaxes permit fees, looks for ways businesses can return

 


Permit fees for outdoor dining have been waived in the city as most of southwestern Pennsylvania entered Governor Tom Wolf’s “green phase” for reopening businesses on June 5.

Fees for sidewalk retail permits have also been waived.

“We are just trying to support our businesses,” said Karina Ricks, the city’s director of the Department of Mobili With many previously scheduled in-person events going virtual, the upcoming New Sun Rising Vibrancy Awards on June 20 is taking a different approach to make the gathering more communal.

ty and Infrastructure (DOMI), at the June 2 virtual special meeting of the South Side Planning Forum.

Businesses in the green phase must maintain social distancing, occupancy limits, and require the wearing of masks. Gatherings of more than 250 people are still prohibited.

Outdoor dining will allow for additional customers in light of indoor dining limits. But both indoor and outdoor seating areas must adhere to the same green phase regulations.

Ms. Ricks said the city recently established the Task Force on Streets and Mobility, which met four times in May.

 The task force explored ideas on how city streets and mobility services can be used to support businesses as they begin to reopen, but with appropriate precautions for community health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Task force recommendations include no operational changes to low-volume streets while introducing signage and barriers. While cars are not prohibited on those streets, they should travel slowly and not on thru-streets, she said.

Another recommendation is to develop consistent signage to direct patrons to pick-up and park safely and at a safe distance in business districts in consideration of social distancing requirements.

Another idea is to better manage curbsides to enable space for sidewalk expansion for outdoor seating.

Additionally, off-streets, side streets, and parking lots could be used differently. Some streets could be closed entirely.

Transit use is an issue with social distancing. The question is, “How to supply additional mobility services?” she said.

DOMI is also working with the Dept. of Parks and Recreation on closing streets in larger regional parks, like Highland and Riverview.

The use of open space becomes important for outdoor expansion, she said.

Ms. Ricks said as East Carson St. is a state route, some things may not be able to be done there.

City Councilman Bruce Kraus said he and city nighttime economy coordinator Allison Harnden have had conversations with the Pittsburgh Parking Authority about using parking lots, and hope to find a level of compromise for outdoor dining.

He said the talks are “very preliminary” in light of East Carson St. being a state highway with construction occurring there now.

At recent local meetings Mr. Kraus said officials were kicking around the idea of using the surface lots at 13th, 18th, and 19th streets to set up tents with tables and chairs for outdoor dining.

Mr. Kraus said the issue was figuring out how to do this as there are expenses for tables, chairs, litter, Public Works tasks, police, and more. But other cities are doing it to help the restaurant and bar industry.

Candice Gonzalez, of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, said some businesses are concerned about the cost of permits for sidewalk sales, to which Ms. Ricks responded those fees are being waived.

 Chamber members are looking at certain blocks for outdoor dining without impacting Carson St., Ms. Gonzalez said.

Ideas include: restaurants’ wait staff serving food in take-out boxes, with delivery to outdoor tables. 

There would also be plastic utensils, so upon completion all materials could be put in the take-out box and tossed.

Ms. Ricks said her team is still building its ideas. “There is a tremendous urgency to respond,” she said.

Ms. Gonzalez said the chamber would be happy to share its ideas. 

Mr. Kraus said that is why he wanted this meeting: to open up the lines of communication. Input, as well as navigable streets, are needed, he said.

He also said if the PED, which is the South Side Parking Enhancement District, had not taken such a large financial hit with COVID-19 closures, some of those funds could have been used for a move into public space.

To a question about the process for obtaining outdoor permits, Ms. Ricks said a merchant should complete a form on the DOMI website.

While there will be no fee, DOMI wants to vet permit applications, and conduct safety reviews. The same goes for sidewalk retail sales.

James McNeel, of the City Theatre, said his industry has been hit worse than the bar/restaurant business with the COVID-19 restrictions.

As the theatre is still closed, he offered its parking lot; food trucks could also use the lot as a control site, he said.

Ms. Ricks said insurance and liability are issues to be considered.

Ms. Gonzalez said some bars and restaurants plan to use their own parking lots, while others have remodeled their sites in strict adherence to the governor’s guidelines.

“Everyone’s doing something different,” she said.

 Ms. Harnden said establishments are “waiting and hoping they can get a higher percentage,” referring to maximum occupancy limits due to social distancing.

Mr. McNeel asked if there is hope for a move to higher capacity if there are no new cases of coronavirus.

Ms. Harnden said it seems like higher occupancies will be rolled out in waves, and could next occur in September. But it comes down to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state.

Mr. McNeel said he knows the mathematics on 50 percent occupancy; he feels Fall, 2020, is lost.

Ms. Ricks said how we can support performances is important.

“We’re all in on trying to figure out alternatives,” Mr. McNeel said, noting the industry also impacts the bar and restaurant industry “as dominoes.”

The meeting began with an update by Mr. Kraus on the $16.5 million East Carson St. safety improvement project, to be carried out by the state Dept. of Transportation [PennDOT].

Construction has begun.

Project upgrades include: milling and resurfacing; signage and signal updates; ADA ramp and guiderail installations; high visibility crosswalks; and more.

The first phase will run from the Smithfield St. Bridge to 9th St., and include the T-station.

“It was always a point of a contention,” he said of the latter.

Crosswalks will be painted at each intersection. There will be new bus stops and shelters.

 Phase 2, which has also begun, will run from 9th St. to 17th St. It will be similar to the upgrades from 1st to 9th streets, except for the sidewalks.

 At each intersection there will be new handicap ramps.

 Regarding the PED, Ms. Harnden said the coronavirus pandemic “hit us hard.”

The PED is the enforcement of South Side Flats parking meters from 6 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. It began in April, 2017.

Before the pandemic, PED income averaged $4,000 per weekend. In March, PED income totaled $779.48; in April, it totaled $114.89; in May, the income was $656.53.

The funds must be invested back in the neighborhood for public safety, cleanliness, and infrastructure improvements.

The trust fund balance of the PED is $279,886.

Expenditures from the PED include Block by Block, or the Clean Team, retained to keep the E. Carson St. corridor maintained. 

It has two workers, or ambassadors, and costs about $11,000 per month.

 The main daily focus has been East Carson St. between 10th and 25th streets, and the side streets about one block in both directions. 

With less litter due to COVID-19 closures, the Clean Team was kept busy with extra activities, Ms. Harnden said, such as cleaning trash cans; concentrating on streets that don’t usually get attention; and cleaning vandalism at some bus sites.

Mr. Kraus said the consensus was that it was important that when businesses reopen to show a clean and neat business district.

 In news of the Development Review Committee (DRC), Barbara Rudiak, of the South Side Community Council, said the Planning Commission held its first meeting on the proposed marina at the SouthSide Works. She hopes to provide more information at the July Planning Forum meeting.

 The meeting concluded with member organizations’ reports.

 Ms. Rudiak said the combined South Side Community Council home/garden tour scheduled for June 28 has been cancelled.

Also, an Esser Plaza fundraiser planned for May 30 also had to be cancelled.

For more on DOMI and the task force report, visit: pittsburghpa.gov/domi/covid-19.

 

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