NEW PORT RICHEY — Embracing a national trend to build small "parklets" over public parking spaces in urban areas has led the city to consider revamping its alcohol ordinances to allow for sidewalk drinking and dining.
During a meeting Tuesday, the New Port Richey City Council discussed a pilot program to allow downtown businesses to erect parklets with an eye toward promoting more foot traffic and outdoor activity downtown.
The idea for parklets — deck-like structures built alongside a sidewalk and over adjacent parking spaces — came about after a dispute between the city and Sip restaurant owners Lisa and Kris Bolster. The Bolsters installed a wooden parklet last month in front Sip, at 6231 Grand Blvd.
A March 5 gathering to unveil the parklet drew public officials, including Mayor Rob Marlowe and Deputy Mayor Jeff Starkey, who expressed interest in allowing others to build similar structures downtown.
Others complained, however, and the city issued a citation to Lisa Bolster for building the parklet without a permit. The Bolsters were shocked. Their yearlong discussions with the city about the parklet led them to assume they could put it up.
The Bolsters moved the parklet off the street, but City Council members said they wanted to consider a program that would allow parklets downtown. That led to Tuesday's hearing.
Council members seemed poised to green-light an 18-month parklet test program, but another hitch emerged: What about alcohol consumption on the parklets?
Even though business owners would insure parklets and provide for their upkeep, said City Attorney Timothy Driscoll, parklets still were sitting in a public space. New Port Richey bans alcohol consumption in public spaces without a special-event permit.
That did not sit well with Lisa Bolster, who told the council her vision was to allow customers to have a drink and eat food on their parklet. That prompted the council to move away from the parklet idea and consider what they called "dining decks." The city could lease public space to businesses, where they could build structures like the one the Bolsters installed.
A "dining deck" would be an extension of the business and allow for food and alcohol consumption. However, that still required relaxing the city's ban on alcohol in public places, Driscoll said.
In a compromise of sorts, the City Council unanimously approved a "dining deck" program, allowing downtown businesses to negotiate a lease for a structure built over parking spaces. The council took no action on the city's alcohol laws.
The council also approved a sweeping effort to look at downtown parking issues and ways to generate more foot traffic. That could include widening parameters for sidewalk dining and changes to alcohol ordinances.
The Bolsters said they could wait on ordinance changes if the city allows them to return their structure to Grand Boulevard. If they reach an agreement to return the parklet, they still would have to wait to serve alcohol.
Starkey expressed support for cutting "red tape" and allowing restaurant owners to develop outdoor activities.
"Let's get people outside," he said. "Let's make it easy."