Working Group To Refine Downtown Traffic, Pedestrian Plan

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

Town officials walked downtown Chatham Tuesday to check for potential problems with a draft traffic plan.  TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM — To provide more social distancing room for shoppers, downtown merchants have proposed banning on-street parking and allowing only one-way traffic on Main Street this summer. A new working group has been formed to review and refine the proposal.

At last Thursday’s meeting of the board of selectmen, Chatham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director said business leaders have developed a plan for “a safe, socially distant Main Street for year-rounders, seasonal residents, visitors and also our business owners and their staffs.” Drafted by Heather McGrath of the Chatham Merchants’ Association, the plan calls for no on-street parking along Main Street between the rotary and Shore Road, with only one-way, eastbound vehicle traffic.

The goal of the restrictions is to allow widened sidewalks on both sides of the street “to create space for social distancing,” Cavanaugh said. Some short-term parking spaces would be available for pedestrian drop-off and pickup and for people to pick up orders from stores. Pedestrian traffic would be limited to one direction on each side of the street.

The early proposal was sent to down department heads, and some concerns were expressed by the police, fire and public works departments. Cavanaugh urged selectmen to convene a working group to address those concerns.

“Time is of the essence, however,” she said. Retail stores are already allowed to open for curbside service or remote order fulfillment and could open their doors to customers as soon as next week.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he understands the safety concerns about the plan, but likes the idea of a working group to quickly resolve the problems. The idea of providing more room for shoppers on foot is an attractive one, Dykens added.

“I’ve longed for Chatham’s downtown to be more pedestrian-friendly,” he said. A member of the board of health should serve on the group, he added.

Cavanaugh said the working group could include representatives of key town departments, the chamber and merchants’ association, the board of health, the board of selectmen, the parks and recreation commission, the economic development committee, and the traffic safety committee.

Board member Dean Nicastro said the group should be a working group assembled by the town manager, rather than a town committee subject to Open meeting Law requirements.

“I think we can get this going pretty quickly,” Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said. The group will be led by Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan.

This summer’s large gatherings downtown have already been canceled, including the Independence Day parade, weekly band concerts and the weekly Mondays on Main music events. But downtown business owners have argued that welcoming people to shop and dine on Main Street, even in reduced numbers, will be key to allowing their businesses to survive the COVID-19 economic downturn.

The new working group may also be called upon to consider the relaxation of current town bylaws that limit or prohibit outdoor commerce in town. When stores and restaurants reopen to the public, they will likely be encouraged to display their goods or seat patrons outdoors, where the likelihood of transmitting the coronavirus is lower. Some of those practices are currently in conflict with Chatham’s zoning, planning and historic business district commission rules.

When it comes to complying with the new state regulations, “we’re trying to find ways to work with businesses to make it a little bit easier for them,” Donovan told the board of health Monday. In the town of Dennis, the health board issued an order allowing the outdoor display of goods in a retailer’s parking lot, and expanded outdoor seating for restaurants (see story, Page 3).

The working group met by conference call Monday and toured downtown on foot Tuesday to take a more detailed look at parking areas, sidewalks and crosswalks. The group plans to make its recommendations to the board of selectmen at the board’s June 16 meeting, Donovan said.