A Change.org petition to keep part of the Lakewood Ranch street open to pedestrians has more than 850 signatures.
When Greenbrook resident Ray Niecestro heard Lakewood Main Street had reopened to traffic June 13, he was disappointed.
He had grown fond of traveling to the blocked-off section of Lakewood Main Street whenever he and his wife, Brooke Niecestro, and 5-year-old daughter, Stella Niecestro, wanted to spend some time on the town during the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his family especially enjoyed days where they could listen to live music while soaking in the atmosphere of a wide, pedestrian-friendly plaza.
“(I enjoyed) just being around all those people, and having the music, and being able to get up and dance and have a good time with my girls.”
So Ray Niecestro started a petition on change.org called “Keep Lakewood Main Street Open for Pedestrians.” As of 11:38 a.m. June 18, five days after it was created, the petition had more than 750 signatures.
“The comments have been supportive, and people have done a good job of getting the word out,” Ray Niecestro said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people who enjoyed that same atmosphere.”
Lakewood Main Street first closed to traffic in April 2020 as a way to ensure restaurants could provide adequate outdoor seating to help make up for the loss of customers caused by indoor dining restrictions. Indoor seating has become more popular in recent weeks as COVID-19 fears lessen.
Lakewood Ranch Commercial’s Amanda Zipperer, the property manager for Lakewood Main Street, said the East Manatee Fire District was understanding of the situation even though it could provide a hazard if first responders had to attend to an emergency on the street. Zipperer said the fire district has told Lakewood Ranch Commercial it will no longer support keeping the road closed, citing the need to provide emergency access.
Ray Niecestro said without dining tables in the street, the sidewalks can become rather crowded, which were sometimes difficult to navigate when he had Stella Niecestro in tow.
“We understand the desire for the street to remain closed but that isn’t an option at this time,” Zipperer said. “Lakewood Ranch Main Street is currently looking into alternatives to provide more sidewalk area, but the street will be required by East Manatee Fire Rescue to remain open permanently as it was pre-COVID.”
Ray Niecestro said he understands there have to be accommodations made for emergency access and possibly more accessible parking for those who need it. He said the petition is not a demand, but more of a request for dialogue and an opportunity to provide feedback in hopes of finding a compromise between the fire district, Lakewood Ranch Commercial and residents who want to keep the area accessible for pedestrians.
“I don’t think anybody’s expecting us to sign this petition and have Main Street closed again by the weekend,” Ray Niecestro said.
When asked if Lakewood Ranch Commercial would be open to dialogue with residents who didn’t want to see the street reopened to traffic, Zipperer declined to comment.
Ray Niecestro first heard about the decision to reopen the street to traffic on Nextdoor. He didn’t get the idea to create a petition right away. It was only after scrolling through the comments and seeing the scores of Lakewood Ranch residents who also wanted to see that section of Lakewood Main Street become a permanent pedestrian area that he decided he needed to do something about it.
Ray Niecestro said he would like to see the area follow the trend of shopping plazas that are more oriented around pedestrian access, open-air dining and the outdoors in general.
“I was thinking it was something that would benefit Main Street as a whole,” Ray Niecestro said.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.