A friend hugged Ferraro’s executive chief Giuseppe DiPietro in the lobby outside council chambers at town hall late last night, offering a warm embrace after what had been another long evening during what has been a stressful summer.
“Good days are ahead,” he told him.
More than three hours after presenting a revised proposal to the Planning Board, and more than three months after watching its storied downtown restaurant be destroyed in a fire, good days and lively nights are once again on the horizon for the Ferraro family.
The Planning Board unanimously approved Palmiro Ferraro, Inc.’s application for reconstruction of a three-story building on its downtown property Thursday night. The three-hour meeting was less contentious – though at times more long-winded – than when the company presented its original plans to the board a month ago before the board decided to delay consideration of the proposal that then included a three-story restaurant on Lots 2 and 3 of its property at 14 Elm Street.
After having the initially-scheduled August 1 hearing delayed to allow the company enough time to revise its plans, Ferraro’s and its representatives offered a substantially similar yet sufficiently different proposal that satisfied both the zoning and construction concerns of board members while also appeasing the liquor law and historic architectural worries expressed by residents. Unlike the initial proposal, the approved plans include a ground-floor expansion into part of Lot 4, which is not owned by Ferraro’s but is partially permitted to be used by them. However, by no longer considering the third floor part of the main Ferraro’s building – and instead proposing it as a “separate entity” to be leased to a yet-to-be-determined tenant – many of the hurdles that tripped up the company’s initial attempts at approval were consequently avoided.
Ferraro’s surprised many with its proposal at the July 18 hearing, which depicted a three-story building with three floors of dining space that would all be considered one restaurant. The initial plan included seating for 104 guests for family-style dining on the first floor, space for 88 people in a more upscale dining area on the second floor, and a hybrid third floor with uses ranging from additional family-style dining to private party space to a waiting room to be used on busy weekend nights. The third floor accommodated 80 guests, raising the total occupancy to 272.
In addition to confusing board members and residents with the logistical practicality of such a proposal, the plans were in violation of a liquor license regulation included in the town code. Section 4.7, which deals with liquor licenses, states that “[a]t least seventy-five percent of the licensed premises under this chapter on a square foot basis shall be on the ground floor of the building with direct access from the street.” Last night, Ferraro’s representatives suggested that they were not aware of such a regulation when they prepared and presented their original proposal in July.
“We didn’t know the technicalities,” Lina Ferraro-DiPietro, an officer for Ferraro’s, told the board last night.
Though there was no specific discussion of whether the revised square footage was sufficient to meet the 75 percent threshold referred to in the code, a rearrangement of the seating capacity of each floor and a different use of the third floor apparently enabled Ferraro’s to meet the regulation’s requirements. In addition to 120 dining seats on the ground floor of Lots 2 and 3, Ferraro’s will also expand the first floor into part of the adjacent property next door, allowing for 70 more seats in Lot 4 and a total first floor occupancy of 190. The second floor will now include 50 dining seats and 14 waiting seats. Both floors will feature service bars.
When asked by Patch after the meeting of whether square footage or seating capacity was the measurement material to the 75 percent threshold in Section 4.7, several board members suggested seating capacity was the relevant factor to quantify. Under the revised plan, the 190 dining seats on the ground floor would comprise about 79 percent of the dining seats offered in the two-story Ferraro’s, thus allowing the plan to comply with Section 4.7. (The second floor’s 14 waiting seats not counting toward the total.)
Board member and Councilman Jim Foerst expressed concern with the inclusion of a retractable wall on the second floor that separates the waiting area from the dining room. When opened, he said the floor’s service bar would then be open to the dining area and thus alter the 75 percent balance. Ferraro-DiPietro suggested the door would typically only be open for private events and said she thought (incorrectly) the regulation did not apply to such situations. While the board’s attorney said it was not the Planning Board’s place to determine the proposed plans’ compliance with liquor laws, the possible switch to a more permanent wall on the second floor was later thrown in as part of a list of conditions for Ferraro’s to consider.
Ultimately, the company’s adjusted utilization of the third floor of its building was a crucial change from last month’s proposal, though details were scarce on what the exact use will be.
“It could be for private parties, we’re not exactly sure,” Ferraro-DiPietro said. “We haven’t figured out all the details given everything that’s gone on.”
Later, when being questioned by Christopher Hopkins – the attorney for the owners of the property adjacent to Ferraro’s on the North Avenue side concerned with potential noise pollution for his clients – Ferraro-DiPietro said the third floor space has a kitchen and would be used for “some kind of party dining.”
“Right now, we’re going to be flexible,” she said.
The company’s representatives repeatedly referred to the third floor unit as a “separate entity”, one that they said would not be part of Ferraro’s and would not be able to use Ferraro’s liquor license. But upon further questioning from the board, it was clear that whatever LLC or entity controls the third floor space will overlap somewhat with Ferraro’s, and witnesses testified the two entities would have common directors.
“It will be run our family,” Ferraro-DiPietro said.
Other changes were made that differed from the July proposal, though most of them less significant. Ferraro’s architect, Nancy Dougherty, said the new plans include moving the elevator and a stair case from the rear of the building to the front vestibule to allow for immediate access to upper levels. A second set of doors will welcome guests from the vestibule into the restaurant’s main room. The new plan also moves the service bar into the main room which, under Section 4-4(b) of the town code, will not be permitted to serve alcoholic beverages except with meals served to customers seated at tables. Dougherty also said that the main kitchen on the first floor will serve both floors, though there will also be a smaller kitchen on the second floor used for warming and serving meals.
Perhaps to quell the outcry of residents who feared what a three-story restaurant would do to the rest of downtown’s traditional look and feel, Dougherty included nine pages of streetscapes in her exhibit. The new Ferraro’s would fit into the streetscape in terms of scale and size, she said.
Ferraro’s – which requested four variances from the Land Use Ordinance – proposed a 13 foot 6 inch sign height for its primary sign above street-level awnings. Dougherty testified that if the company was restricted to the 11 foot limit included in Section 16.04(E) of the ordinance, onlookers would not be able to read the sign above the awnings.
One major aspect of the plan that is still largely undeveloped is the size and location of ventilation equipment that will be installed on the restaurant’s roof. While Dougherty said the vents would not be visible from the front of the building, she admitted that the size and height of the vents is still unknown.
“We don’t have that information yet,” she said.
The company’s third witness, planner Peter Steck, focused much of his thorough testimony on the variance Ferraro requested from Section 17.02(C)(27)(r), regarding off-street parking spaces. He cited the board’s history of allowing non-conforming uses by Ferraro’s, which previously was required by ordinance to have 156 parking spaces, which the company provides in-part through a valet parking service that brings cars to a lot owned by the Weldon Company on Central Avenue. Steck testified that because the structure was subject to a series of variances and that the variances travel with the land, Ferraro’s has a right to rely on the continuation of those variances despite them being interrupted by hardship. Under the new plan, the number of parking spaces required for the restaurant would rise to 171.
The two other variances requested by Ferraro’s included Section 16.04(E) (proposing the use of four signs, instead of one) and Section 11.25(E)(3) (proposing no rear-yard setback, instead of the required 20 feet).
Steck summarized his testimony by demonstrating how the benefits of the revised plans for the landmark restaurant “substantially outweigh the detriments,” a fitting theme for a hearing that lacked the tension and disorder that ultimately derailed the preceding one. Resident John Blake asked Ferraro-DiPietro and Dougherty about their consultation of the town’s liquor laws, but did not press them as hard on the issue as he had last month. Resident Julia Diddell approached the microphone a handful of times to question several details regarding the proposed architecture and the degree to which the company should have consulted with the Historic Preservation Society, but was ultimately satisfied when Ferraro’s agreed to the condition of meeting with the Architecture Review Board before starting reconstruction.
Nearby property owners Bob Saunders and Matt Palmer requested Ferraro’s alter its practices of washing off its mats in the alleyway behind the building and allowing the grease and runoff debris to impact their properties. In response, Giuseppe DiPietro discussed plans for cutting-edge garbage and food removal that he hoped would decrease the number of garbage pick-ups required and new tiled floors that will diminish the need for mats.
As the hearing went on, the feeling of inevitable approval that temporarily vanished last month had returned, as residents approached the microphone to speak about the Ferraro family, the irreplaceable role it has played for the past four decades and the obvious impact that others have felt in its absence.
“The business community misses Ferraro’s very much,” said Sherry Cronin, executive director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation, drawing applause from the audience.
Board members also joined in the praise. Foerst discussed how his four-year-old child cried upon hearing the news of the Ferraro’s fire and spoke of the importance of returning the landmark to the community. Darielle Walsh cited the family’s willingness to adopt and compromise and remain such a vibrant part of the town for 42 years.
“[Ferraro’s] has contributed not only to the enjoyment of the downtown community, but to the economy of the downtown community as well,” she said.
The board included a number of conditions before making the motion official, including consultation from the Architecture Review Board, submission of rooftop plans to the a planning committee, and a pre-construction meeting with Town Planner Bill Drew and, possibly, members of the public. At 10:30, the board finally put the measure to a vote. It was quickly approved, and the satisfaction that had eluded the Ferraro family for longer than they may have anticipated was felt. Hugs were exchanged. Handshakes were extended. Late-night drink plans were made.
Good days were, in fact, ahead.