Saline City Council Approves Outdoor Seating on South Ann Arbor Street

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Bring your shades,  sunscreen and your appetite to downtown Saline.

"Umbrella Square" is returning to South Ann Arbor Street.

After hearing from business owners, downtown leaders and interested citizens, Saline City Council voted 7-0 to close part of South Ann Arbor Street, between Michigan Avenue and Henry Street, from April 30 to Aug. 29. Umbrella Square will provide seating for Mac's Acadian Seafood Shack, Brecon Grille, Carrigan Cafe and Smoke House 52. There will also be a space set aside for the general public.

"I do think this is of critical importance as we've heard from many of our restaurateurs today," Mayor Brian Marl said. "It's not hyperbolic this may be life or death to some of them, and the vitality of our downtown is integral to our community's short and long-term success."

Restaurant owners told council the outdoor seating is crucial to surviving the pandemic. Phil Tolliver, owner of Smokehouse 52, said when Umbrella Square was open last year, it accounted for 85 percent of his weekly sales.

"So without that, if I wouldn't have had that, I would be closed. Without it again this year, I will be closing my doors. There's no doubt about it," Tolliver said. "Truly, without that outdoor seating, Smokehouse will not exist. That's the painful truth."

Smokehouse, unlike some of the other restaurants, does not have its own sidewalk or patio seating. Tolliver said he has 14 employees, most of whom live in Saline. He said Umbrella Square will allow him to hire 10-12 more employees.

Paul Geragosian has owned Brecon Grille for 19 years at the corner of Michigan Avenue and South Ann Arbor Street. He said that from June 16, when Umbrella Square opened, until the day it closed, the outdoor seating represented 75 percent of his business. He also noted that he had 20 employees last summer, compared to 10 today.

"I don't know if I would have survived last year as a business without having an umbrella square," Geragosian said.

Not all business owners are keen on closing the street. Marty Flint, owner of Excalibur Barbershop for 52 years, said closing the street hurts his business. He asked the city to maintain an open portion of the road in front of his business so that elderly customers could easily access his business.

The new recommendation from City Manager Colleen O'Toole varied slightly from what was offered at the March 15 meeting. The recommendations were based on a request from the Saline Community Recruitment and Retention Team, which reformed to help the city help businesses survive during COVID-19. 

One key change in O'Toole's recommendation is a shorter timeline. The original recommendation would have closed South Ann Arbor Street until the end of October. The new recommendation closes the street until Aug. 29 - the day before the first day of school.

O'Toole shared the results of a community survey on the issue. 626 people who responded to the survey said they resided in the city. Among those, 83 percent said they favored closing the street. 75 percent said they visited Umbrella Square last year.

During public comment, most people who spoke on the issue were in favor of closing the street.

Holli Andrews and Dianne Mukkala, representatives from the  Saline Community Recruitment and Retention Team and Saline Main Street, also addressed many of the concerns raised by council members at the May 15 meeting. They heard five concerns.

On the issue of rerouted traffic, they contacted school district officials who told them school bus drivers were fine with the closure, Mukkala said. In addition, they checked with DPW officials to make sure construction projects didn't create a "double impact" with detours. They also expressed confidence that Police Chief Jerrod Hart and his squad would help police sidestreets seeing extra traffic as a result of the closure.

On the issue of community space, Andrews explained, an area immediately south of the four restaurant spaces would be dedicated to for free community space. In addition, Mukkala said, Main Street was working with the farmers market, the library and other organizations to have more events on South Ann Arbor Street.

They addressed two timeframe issues. Main Street continues to advocate for closure into October. But they see the recommendation to keep the street closed until Aug. 29 as the "first phase." Indeed, Marl said the city council would reconsider the time frame at its first meeting in August. The second time-frame issue deals with whether or not the road should be closed weekends or all week. Mukkala explained that tearing down and putting up the barricades costs the city $500 a week. It also costs the restaurants money to put out the tables and chairs and take them down. Andrews said that having the road closed seven days a week, and for a longer period of time, would allow Main Street to invest in aesthetics and placemaking.

The last issue they discussed was "return on investment." According to Andrews, businesses need a lengthy period of time to operate to recoup the money they're spending on tables, umbrellas and other items.

Mukkala said the community needs Umbrella Square.

"People need to get out. People are struggling and stressed and they want to get out but we heard from people are still concerned about going inside restaurants," Mukkala said. "People need a place to go and reconnect and see people, and have a joyous place ongoing the whole summer.  This would be really really good for the community."

Mukkala also said many retailers have spoken about the positive impact Umbrella Square had on their business.

The recent COVID-19 surge and what that could mean for businesses seemed to sway councillors who were cooler to the proposal three weeks ago.

"Part of my evolution and thinking on this matter has about through the capricious nature of the pandemic. The Washtenaw County Department of Health has declared a state of emergency since we last met and that has definitely pushed me in the direction of wanting to move forward in this initiative," said Councillor Jim Dell'Orco.

Councillor Dean Girbach originally was in favor of weekend closures of South Ann Arbor Street.

"We have to look at it from the COVID perspective. There is a concern here and we don't know about this fourth wave that's occurring. The business impact has been incredible," Girbach said.

One public commenter suggested the permanent closure of South Ann Arbor Street to create a downtown square. Girbach said he didn't think that was in the cards.

Councillor Janet Dillon thanked Mukkala and Andrews for listening to and addressing council's concerns.

Several council members expressed the need for council to help businesses that aren't located within a stone's throw of the four corners.

Mayor Brian Marl said the Community Recruitment and Retention team meets April 13.

"One of the things I wanted the top of the agenda for our next meeting are the initiatives and programs to help businesses outside of the downtown - specifically those in our eastern and western corridor," Marl said. "I would add for council's benefit and the public's benefit that over the past decade we have a pretty good track record of supporting businesses throughout the community, not just restaurants and retail, but service industries and manufacturing, as well."

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"One public commenter suggested the permanent closure of South Ann Arbor Street to create a downtown square. Girbach said he didn't think that was in the cards."

I would encourage Mr. Girbach and the other City Leaders to revisit this suggestion. If the street was made a permanent closed area those businesses facing the street could modify their buildings to allow for entrance from the back of their buildings. Then the primary entry could be from the parking lot behind their structures. With some assistance from the city, maybe some downtown improvement funds could be found to defray the cost of adding steps to these businesses. Most of them have back door and in previous times had a back staircase and raised walkway. Maybe those could be added and make this a center gathering place on a ongoing basis. Seems like a improvement from what exists today. That would expand the outside space by twice the square footage of the option approved on Monday.

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