The city of Woodstock will close Benton Street downtown to vehicle traffic again this summer to make space for bars and restaurants to serve patrons outdoors, as the city did last year when state restrictions limited indoor dining.
But this time, the decision could be made permanent to convert the stretch of road faced by popular establishments into a pedestrian-only eating and drinking area each year from May through October.
City staff spoke with the leaders of businesses like Benton Street Tap and others that face the portion of road that would be closed, from East Judd Street to the railroad tracks south of Church Street, and elected officials last month gave staff the green light to keep working with the restaurants on designs for overhead shading and lighting to enhance the area’s ambience and dining experience.
“We’re taking it up a notch from where we were last year,” Woodstock City Council member Mike Turner said.
So far, the city is leaning toward hanging cloth sails overhead to provide shade for the area, along with decorative lighting that could be strung along the supports for the sails.
Adding eight posts and buying the sails to hang from them is estimated to cost $58,000, if the city moves forward with the full traffic closure annually, the city staff said in a memo. An additional $24,000 to $30,000 could be needed for installation costs, and $10,000 to $15,000 for electrical supply.
“There has been some talk of making this on a permanent basis. This is not a discussion about a permanent basis right now. This is a seasonal thing,” Mayor Brian Sager said. “But I would caution, if we want to go down the route of making some investments, we want to make sure those are good, solid investments that will take care of us for a few years.”
The city is also considering commissioning an artist to create a mural on a wall facing the portion of Benton to be closed off to vehicles.
The wooden boardwalks – built several years ago and placed in parking spots on Benton Street to provide an outdoor dining area for the bars and restaurants on the road – could start getting offered to other Woodstock eateries and watering holes for the warmer seasons if the Benton closure takes place each year.
Other municipalities in McHenry County are also keeping their outdoor dining setups in public rights of way for at least one more summer.
Cary is set to bring back “Alfresco Alley” on Spring Street seven days a week, and Huntley is keeping picnic tables in its Town Square in place for the coming summer to give patrons of downtown businesses a place to eat. Huntley has been mulling whether to install some permanent picnic tables in the area, too.
Crystal Lake is also exploring allowing restaurants to close off parking spaces in front of their stores to set up outdoor dining areas.