On-street dining is just an idea - but a good one

Beep, beep, beep.

Let’s back up a bit.

Despite the media hype that might suggest otherwise, Hinsdale will not offer outdoor dining on its downtown streets in the near future. Village officials are not planning to violate Gov. JB Pritzker’s five-phase plan to Restore Illinois.

What they are doing is starting a conversation about steps the village could take to expand restaurant capacity once eateries are allowed to reopen in phase 4. Many expect that won’t happen until the end of June at the earliest, but the time to plan is now (as Village President Tom Cauley notes in a letter to the editor on Page 11).

Even though this idea still isn’t fully formed, we are as intrigued by it as are Cauley, village trustees and village manager Kathleen Gargano.

Yes, there are many concerns that must be addressed: How will the plan ensure an even playing field for all establishments? What about restaurants like Nabuki that are thriving with carryout? What about the retailers who were forced to close for weeks and finally have been able to open for curbside pickup?

But we believe these obstacles can be overcome if all parties work together in a spirit of collaboration and creativity.

Street closures could be limited to a certain night of the week, like Thursdays to replace the Uniquely Thursdays series that is likely to be canceled. Or they could occur only on weekends when many retailers are closed. Outdoor seating could be limited for each restaurant to the number of tables it lost indoors due to social distancing requirements.

Or maybe the key to making this work is to think even bigger and transform most of the downtown into a pedestrian mall during July and August. The parking deck is set to be open by that time, which would allow convenient parking with easy access to the central business district.

Restaurants along Washington Street could be furnished with a platform to account for the slope of the street. Retailers could take advantage of space outdoors to showcase their wares and ensure social distancing for customers. A concierge area in the parking deck could serve as a pick-up area for merchandise from any store in town.

We know there are other considerations to be addressed and other questions to be asked, with parking for employees who work downtown at the top of the list. But it is a discussion worth having, and we encourage the village to assemble a task force of restaurant owners and retailers to work with the village’s economic development commission on the concept. Spend the next few weeks developing a plan that will be ready for implementation when phase 4 begins.

Some business owners downtown already have expressed concerns. We encourage all merchants to focus on the possibilities for the central business district as a whole and to devote their energies to finding creative fixes for any problems they anticipate.

Hinsdale is filled with intelligent, creative and committed business owners and residents. We are confident they can work together to brainstorm innovative ways to bring patrons to town this summer. That way, when we finally reach phase 5 and return to normalcy, there will still be some businesses for them to patronize.