Zoning staff will work with the owner of Shelton’s Riverdale Diner on how to prevent potential parking problems if the diner begins using its lower level again as a banquet hall.
Rick Schultz, city planning and zoning administrator, said he would work with the owner to “fine tune” the parking situation. “It sounds like we want to do a little more work with the owner,” Schultz said after a discussion at the Feb. 25 meeting of the Shelton Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z).
Halem Saad, owner of the diner at 521 River Road, wants to use the lower level for private gatherings such as business meetings and post-funeral receptions. The main level — or upper level of the split-level structure — is where the diner operation is located.
The lower level already has a separate entrance and would be called The Great River Room. “We want to serve a need in the community,” said Saad, who also owns a diner in Cromwell.
P&Z members are concerned there may not be enough on-site parking at peak diner times if the new gathering room is in use at the same time.
Members are worried that patrons could begin parking on the two abutting roads, Constitution Boulevard South and River Road (Route 110). Overflow parking on these roads was a problem in the distant past when the site was a nightclub and restaurant, Schultz said.
Nancy Dickal, P&Z member, said Riverdale Diner patrons now park “up and down” Constitution Boulevard on Sunday mornings, a popular time for going out to eat breakfast. She said this creates “safety issues” with people walking in or near the road.
Ruth Parkins, P&Z chairman, wondered where all the “extra cars” would park when an event in the lower-level banquet area coincides with busy times at the diner.
Many restaurants at site
Schultz presented P&Z members with a history of the building, which was home to various restaurants beginning in the 1960s before it was turned into a diner by developer Chris Bargas. The current owner, Saad, purchased the business from Bargas in 2001.
Schultz’s presentation also touched on the different number of on-site parking spaces through the years. The property currently appears to have 80 on-site parking spots, and 101 spots would be required for the use of both restaurant levels, based on parking regulations adopted in 2013.
The question of whether the establishment’s prior parking requirements should be “grandfathered” in was discussed, because specific zoning permission was granted in 2002 to the current owner for use of the lower level as a banquet hall.
However, zoning action on the property in 2001 restricted use of the lower level to non-peak times for the diner.
Parkins said all the changes made in the operation through the years might conceivably represent an abandonment of the right to use the lower level under previous rules, such as having fewer parking spaces.
Dickal said some catering events could attract large crowds, noting that post-funeral receptions generally are in the late morning and could conflict with lunch time at the diner.
Parkins said one possibility would be to limit the number of people who could attend banquet functions. She suggested 50 people might be a reasonable limit.
The lower level is approved for 84 seats for catering-type events.
The owner’s perspective
At a previous meeting, Saad said he believes he has the right to use the lower level for banquet purposes based on prior zoning approvals. “You approved it after I bought the place … I’m not adding anything,” he told P&Z members.
He pointed out he had already received a city building permit to do minor work on the inside of the lower level, in preparation for opening the Great River Room banquet hall.
Saad also noted he had eliminated the separate bar area on the main level after he purchased the diner. “I’m not in the bar business,” he said.
While the P&Z didn’t take any formal action on use of the lower level for banquet purposes at the Feb. 25 meeting, it did unanimously approve Saad’s application to put up new signs. Saad was not present at the Feb. 25 meeting.
History of the site
Here is a condensed version on the history of the 521 River Road site, as presented by Schultz:
LATE 1960s: Anthony’s Restaurant, with sit-down restaurant on main level and banquet hall on lower level. Required P&Z parking: 74 spaces.
THE 1970s: Abby Steakhouse, with sit-down restaurant on main level and banquet hall on lower level. Required P&Z parking: 74 spaces.
LATE 1970s, EARLY 1980s: Yesterday’s Pizza House, with sit-down/take-out restaurant on main level and banquet hall/bar/live music on lower level. Required P&Z parking: 74 spaces.
LATE 1980s, EARLY 1990s: Trani Restorante, with sit-down/take-out restaurant on main level and banquet hall on lower level. Required P&Z parking: 74 spaces.
1987: Chris Bargas purchases the property.
1991: Bargas opens the Riverdale Diner on the site, with sit-down restaurant on main level and banquet hall on lower level. Required P&Z parking: 74 spaces.
2001: Bargas sells the diner to Saad. Under new ownership, the patio area is enclosed to add 600 square feet of indoor area on main floor for live music and entertainment as well as additional restrooms; a condition of approval restricted use of the lower level during peak times of the restaurant. Required P&Z parking: 80 spaces, with 88 recognized as being on the property.
2002: Permission received for walk-in refrigerator/freezer room addition, eliminating the main-level music and full-service bar area, and to continue using the banquet hall with up to 84 seats. Required P&Z parking: 80 spaces.
2013: P&Z revises its citywide parking standards, which increases the number of spaces needed in many situations.
2015: Owner seeks permission for new outdoor signs to begin using the lower level as the Great River Room banquet facility. This leads to P&Z discussion of whether formal approvals are needed for the banquet room use.