These Philly suburbs started closing their streets on weekends during the pandemic, and they might never stop
“If it wasn’t for the street closure, we would be out of business," said one restaurant owner.
When Orbi Bitraj sees weekend crowds now flocking to Phoenixville on summer nights — some stumbling upon his corner Italian restaurant for the first time, others arriving in groups for reserved tables — he feels an immense sense of gratitude.
And not just for that night’s business. He’s thankful, too, he said, for the borough’s decision two years ago to close the main thoroughfare of Bridge Street and turn it into a pedestrian plaza during warm-weather weekends. The move was meant, borough leaders said, to help the dozens of restaurants and shops stay afloat after pandemic closures and amid continued restrictions.
Bitraj, an owner and business partner of Il Granaio, puts it matter-of-factly: “If it wasn’t for the street closure, we would be out of business.”
Restaurant patrons always have loved dining and drinking outside, owners say, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused people to gravitate even more toward outdoor destinations.
Now, Phoenixville officials hope to continue to close the street on summer weekends for the foreseeable future to help attract visitors. Other places are considering the same: West Chester is still closing Gay Street to cars on weekends this summer, even as many people resume pre-pandemic activities, and Philadelphia will allow restaurants to operate expanded outdoor dining on top of parking spaces on a permanent basis.
Phoenixville, which has in recent years transformed itself from a run-down steel town to a trendy suburban spot, is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of ways downtowns have adapted to people’s amped-up preference for the outdoors.
“If you come down on a Friday or Saturday night, there are bands everywhere, musicians in the street, kids playing, adults walking around and talking to each other,” Mayor Peter Urscheler said. “It’s not Mardi Gras by any means. But it’s this community, jovial atmosphere.”
Others places have provided similar experiences: Philadelphia restaurants expanded onto city sidewalks and into parking spaces, with the number of outdoor dining seats in Center City having increased to more than 5,000 from 3,501 in 2019, according to a recent report.
Several New Jersey towns, including Glassboro and Asbury Park, shut down streets in recent summers, though they do not plan to do so again this year. In Delaware County, Media’s Dining Under the Stars has been popular for more than a decade, drawing in thousands for al fresco dining every Wednesday in the summer. In West Chester, restaurants say Gay Street closures have been a boon since 2020.
“Without a doubt, it’s a tremendous help,” said Donald Moore, an owner of The Social restaurant, which opened in 2011. And it’s helped contribute to the borough’s status as an “epicenter” of the western suburbs, attracting a steady flow of people even on traditionally slow summer weekends: “If you’re not going to the city or the Shore, you’re going to West Chester.”
“What I really like about it is just the ambience,” said Sofi Michael, general manager of Opa Taverna across the street, noting that even the July Fourth weekend was unexpectedly busy. “I just love the way it feels when the street is closed.”
During various periods of the pandemic, only outdoor dining was permitted, since the coronavirus has been found to spread far less rapidly in open-air settings than indoors. Even when indoor dining was allowed, some people remained wary, even if they felt comfortable returning to other indoor activities, because it is of course impossible to remain masked while enjoying a meal.
In West Chester and Phoenixville, borough councils first approved these plans in June 2020, with the intent of helping businesses recover and providing a space for people to comfortably gather after months of isolation.
“The real, underlying motivation here was to provide a place where people can physically distance and feel safe coming back to our town and dining and shopping,” former West Chester Mayor Dianne Herrin said at the time (Mayor Lillian DeBaptiste, who was sworn in in January, could not be reached for comment).
Now in its third summer, the Phoenixville initiative has accomplished its original goals and then some, said Urscheler, who has been mayor since 2018 and worked with council to take the plan — which in Phoenixville includes to-go cocktails within the closed-off area — from idea to reality in about 48 hours.
“Our first go-round in 2020, we didn’t make it this huge kind of splash,” Urscheler said, noting that at the time borough leaders were leery of creating even outdoor crowds where the virus might spread. “Now in 2022, we have the ability to draw more people in,” through word-of-mouth and advertisement outside the borough.
“We are looking at it as a way to make Phoenixville a destination,” he added.
One parking lot alone averages about 800 cars a weekend, the mayor said. At Il Granaio, the number of people served on summer weekends has more than doubled compared to pre-COVID times, Bitraj said.
At Bluebird Distilling, which had to close two locations in Center City and Old City early in the pandemic, summertime business at its Phoenixville location has increased by nearly 50% — “if not more,” said Jared Adkins, founder and master distiller. “That’s a true testament to Phoenixville and what they’ve done.”
Over the past few weekends, the distillery has logged the best numbers, in terms of overall revenue and overall cocktails made, in its seven-year history, he said.
At the historic Colonial Theatre in the middle of downtown, it’s “really impossible to say” whether the street closure has attracted moviegoers or dissuaded people from opting for an indoor activity, said Emily Simmons, director of marketing and events. However, she said, several of their film festivals have done well on days when the street was closed.
Financially, the move has helped the theater by decreasing its costs for events that previously required special street closures, such as last weekend’s Blobfest, the annual celebration of the 1950s sci-fi film that was back in-person for the first time since the pandemic struck.
And from an advertising perspective, “we have more people milling out in the street. They’re able to walk with open containers,” she said. “That’s more eyes on the posters in front, the marquee.”
The mayor said he hopes the street closure continues for years to come, with the borough improving upon it each year and perfecting aspects such as accessibility.
“There is this joy when you walk into the street closure,” he said. “We’ve turned Bridge Street into this community space for residents and visitors alike. … Essentially, it’s like the living room of Phoenixville.”