It’ll Be An Hour Wait

How many times have you shown up at your favorite restaurant or the hot new spot only to find a long wait. You look around and wonder “There’s plenty of space.  Why don’t they have more seats?”

Where Rox Diner currently sits in Newtonville was formerly a Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is my understanding this restaurant was the impetus in the 70’s for Newton to change our restaurant seating requirements from being square footage based to parking based in an effort to keep fast-food out to preserve the character of our villages.  It appears to have worked as that was one of the few joints in the City.  That seating requirement is still in place today. The mystifying formula takes seats away if there is not dedicated parking and only through a cumbersome, expensive and uncertain special permit process can seats be returned, but often not at the level that is allowed by state fire code.

About a year ago I compiled data from restaurant listing across the area, comparing seats per square foot in Newton to surrounded areas including Arlington, Boston, Brighton, Brookline, Cambridge, JP, Somerville, Waltham, Watertown & Wellesley. The data included 28 non-Newton establishments and 13 Newton based.  The findings:

Outside Newton averaged 30 square feet per seat versus 82 SF/seat for Newton
The lowest ratios outside were 16 SF/seat (Somerville) followed by 2 at 18 SF/seat – Newton’s best were 40, 43 and 56 (note that Newton’s most liberal seating is higher than the average of neighbors)
The highest ratios outside 56, 51, 50 (all less than Newton’s average and just slightly above Newton’s best) – Newton had 4 sites that topped 100 SF/seat.

Given today’s current environment, are the current requirements still valid or do they need updating?

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Matt YospinJulia MalakieTed Hess-MahanSteve FellerJeffrey Pontiff Recent comment authors
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Lynne LeBlanc

Good data, @Steve. And if we are being told higher density is good for our village centers, doesn’t it only makes sense to allow for higher density in those village restaurants?
Question: what is the process to change the people/SF ratio?

Jeffrey Pontiff
Jeffrey Pontiff

Great topic. I never knew that Newton regulated the number of seats. Do the other cities have similar explicit regulations that link seats to parking? It seems like we always add new regulations without revisiting old regulations.

The restaurant situation in Newton has recently improved, yet I feel it is not as good as should be. Waltham, Cambridge, and Brookline historically have offered better choices. It would be great if restaurant owners could chime in about what makes Newton different.

Ted Hess-Mahan
Ted Hess-Mahan

Steve, it does my heart good to hear you say this. When I was chairing Land Use, whenever restaurants, including Rox Diner, would come in for parking waivers, I could never make sense of the CIty’s parking requirements. You are absolutely correct that the more seats, the shorter the wait times. And, perhaps counterintuitively, that increases the available parking because people don’t need to park for as long a period of time. So it makes sense to reduce or eliminate this unduly burdensome requirement.

Now that I am chairing Zoning and Planning, I want to see if we can fix this through zoning reform. We will be taking up the Mayor’s request for funding for a consultant shortly and then we will embark on an 18 month process of overhauling our seriously obsolete zoning ordinance.

Jeffrey Pontiff
Jeffrey Pontiff

Ted and Steve, help me on this. Is this regulation part of the zoning code, part of Newton regulation of restaurants, of is the code for this a melting pot?

It would be great to get rid of parking restrictions for restaurants. Wow!

Uber (and ride sharing) has been an incredible innovation that reduces demand for parking. When my wife and I go out for dinner we almost always Uber. This allows me to aggressively support local restaurants and their wine menus.

Steve, I had breakfast at Bread and Chocolate yesterday.

Ted Hess-Mahan
Ted Hess-Mahan

Jeffrey, the restrictive regulations on restaurants are entirely a creature of our zoning ordinance. Section 5.1.4 contains a table with the onerous parking restrictions, which require 1 parking space for every 3 seats plus 1 space for every 3 employees. The 50 seat limit without a special permit is in Section 6.4.29. These restrictions are not unlike a lot of Newton’s Zoning Ordinance, which is all too often about the last thing someone didn’t like, and has unintended consequences.

Julia Malakie

Are a lot of restaurants grandfathered in? I get takeout a lot at Shing Yee in West Newton. They have seats but I’m not aware they have any of their own parking. Sometimes I stop opportunistically to get takeout just because there’s an on street space. But I don’t think they’ve been there since the ’70s. If a previous restaurant is grandfathered in, would that carry over to a new restaurant if they kept the same seating?

Ted Hess-Mahan
Ted Hess-Mahan

Yes. There is a formula in Section 5.1.3 on the zoning ordinance which exempts “phantom parking” from the parking requirements whenever there is a change of use or floor area that triggers the need for more parking. Most restaurants in village centers do not meet the parking requirements, so virtually every increase in the number of seats or floor area requires a special permit for a parking waiver.

Matt Yospin

Love the “aggressive support of wine menus”! Hear, hear.

Matt Yospin

I was just thinking about biking in Newton, so here’s a thought:
Could we allow restaurants to add seats beyond the parking requirement (until we get Zoning reform…) if they add a bike rack nearby? @Ted?
Could lead to a big increase in bike parking near restaurants and village centers.