Additional outdoor dining is planned for downtown Lakeland by late summer after a “streetscape” project extends the sidewalk and builds in safety buffers on the block of Main Street across from Munn Park.

In mid-July, construction will begin on a streetscape for Main Street between Kentucky and Tennessee avenues. The active-frontage project will expand the current sidewalk by about 6 feet to allow for larger pedestrian areas.

Because there are currently two restaurants on that block and the possibility that at least one of the vacant storefronts could be leased to a restaurant, the idea is that the expansion will lead to larger sidewalk café options.

“We’re hoping you’ll be seeing lots of tables and chairs and umbrellas,” said Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority. “It is overlooking Munn Park, and in general, people are more attracted to outdoor seating. It’s a more fun way of dining.”

Removal and replacement of the current trees – which needed to eventually be replaced because of damage that roots were causing – as well as relocating the light poles will take about a month.

The project will eliminate 11 parking spots, one of which is a disabled parking spot. Townsend said a handicapped parking spot will be added on a nearby corner. Traffic will remain two way, and parking on the opposite side of the street will still be available.

The new Heritage Parking Lot is a block away, and Townsend said her organization is always looking for creative ways to create more customer parking solutions for downtown patrons. One of those — an electric cart shuttle during lunch hour — debuts later this year.

A buffer between vehicle traffic and pedestrians will include planters, light poles and trees.

The business owners on the south side of Main Street overwhelmingly support this project, Townsend said. “We’re really excited. We’ve heard nothing but great things from business owners,” Townsend said.

Chris McArthur, owner of Black & Brew Coffee House and Bistro on Main Street, said he envisions the coffee shop/eatery will be able to add 12 to 16 more seats with the sidewalk extension, along with an awning and some greenery.

“I’m thrilled,” McArthur said. “It’s a way to draw attention to these corridors and make them more lively. People really enjoy eating outside, especially with Munn Park. The sidewalk café is a signal that there’s something going on here, that this is an exciting place to be.”

McArthur welcomes the support of his business and others by the city of Lakeland and the LDDA. “Any time you can add seats without adding square footage, that’s a huge benefit. And pre-Covid, we were often at capacity,” McArthur noted.

Engaging both merchants and patrons is a win-win situation in Townsend’s book.

“Our whole mission is to stimulate the environment to grow the economy in downtown Lakeland. Making a pedestrian-friendly wider sidewalk is exactly accomplishing that. We’re always trying to figure out ways to keep downtown attractive.”

The overall cost for the project is $115,000, with about 95% of the funding coming through Community Redevelopment Agency and LDDA dollars. The only out-of-pocket expenses that some business owners may have to assume is an annual sidewalk café permit, which assures businesses will abide by lighting, cooking, food preparation, umbrella material and other safety guidelines.

Under city ordinance, bars like Linksters Tap Room on Main Street, are not currently eligible for a sidewalk café permit.

The streetscape project may sound familiar, as efforts to expand downtown sidewalks are not new. Last summer, the LDDA began a program to provide restaurants with grants of up to $10,000 each to build a platform called a “parklet” and create landscaping and railings.

Grants were awarded to Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille and Frescos Southern Kitchen & Bar. A third restaurant, Nineteen 61, was also awarded a grant, but it is no longer needed since Nineteen 61 will benefit from the Main Street streetscape.

The parklet project is still under way and there are currently no plans to expand beyond those two establishments, Townsend said. If the streetscape effort and the parklets program are successful for merchants and enjoyable for patrons, Townsend said, expanding the sidewalks on other downtown streets could be a possibility.

“I like dining outside,” said Rick Maxey, a Lakeland resident. “I like the fresh air, the scenery. I’m a people watcher. It’s just pretty downtown.”

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