In cities around the world, restaurants are taking to the streets. They’re transforming parking lots and plazas, spilling onto sidewalks and coming up with “parklets” for more patio space. After months of closed dine-in service, these gathering places are counting on fresh air and more room for social distancing to keep employees and customers safe and businesses alive through the summer months.
Denver could be next to adopt the charge. After eight weeks of running on takeout and delivery only, restaurants and their business improvement districts, as well as volunteer planners across the city, are advocating now for further loosened restrictions on alcohol permitting and temporarily closed-off streets and parking lots to serve diners again.
By Memorial Day, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he expects to announce instructions for restaurants that are looking at a late May or early June reopening. A variance given to Mesa County this month allows for restaurants there to reopen at 30% of their usual fire-code capacity, and in a press conference on Wednesday, Polis said that a greatly reduced capacity should be expected indoors as more restaurants start to open around the state, but “we also want to find ways that they can expand tables outdoors” he said, mentioning sidewalks and parking spaces as potential options.
“We know restaurants are eager to reopen in a way that protects the health of their patrons, and (they) see measures like expanded patio space as one way to do that,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office announced on Tuesday. “(We) have been taking and evaluating requests from various stakeholders on what measures, including expanded patio space, could be implemented to support restaurants … once they’re able to reopen.”
This week, the Downtown Denver Partnership shared plans of its “rapid activation of commercial streets,” which was also proposed to Hancock earlier this month. The group gave nine examples of core blocks in various Denver neighborhoods where vehicle through-traffic and car parking could be temporarily blocked, allowing for pedestrian walkways and al fresco dining areas as seen in Europe or elsewhere in the United States during festivals and events.
“This concept is not new to Denver,” the DDP’s president and CEO Tami Door told The Denver Post. “We have done this many many times, as have great cities around the world. What is particularly intriguing about it now is it’s an amalgamation of wins.”
Those wins, according to Door, include allowing individuals to gather safely again and letting neighborhoods and many of their retail businesses return to life, all while monitoring the viability of these types of gathering spaces long-term.
“We know for the future that this isn’t going away anytime soon, so we really need to understand how our public spaces can create safe spaces,” Door said. In order to do that, she and the DDP have proposed a five-month pilot period from Memorial Day to Oct. 31 that would take advantage of Colorado’s sunshine while allowing restaurants to serve diners in more spaces outdoors.
“We could do it in five minutes.”
“I can make this happen literally yesterday,” restaurateur Beth Gruitch said of the time she would need to open up her dining rooms outside. Gruitch co-owns two restaurants in Larimer Square (Rioja and Bistro Vendome) and two more at Union Station (Ultreia and Stoic & Genuine). She and her team closed down a fifth restaurant, Euclid Hall, permanently at the start of the shutdown.
She knows that closing off Larimer Square to cars will take longer to implement and face more opposition, “but at Union Station, in my opinion, it’s a ‘why not?’ ” she said. “Why wouldn’t we? Let us open up our patios, let us space our tables out, let us fill that space with energy and fun.”
At Union Station, Gruitch envisions the surrounding plaza dotted with dining tables from each of the hall’s various restaurants. She pictures it working just as to-go orders have, but with the added bonus of table service and summery alcoholic beverages.
It’s an appealing image that recalls tables set on Italian piazzas and in Parisian alleyways. But for other Denverites, the idea of turning not just plazas but also city streets into dining rooms is more romantic than practical.
“Look, I couldn’t be more heartbroken for what has happened to the restaurant and bar trade,” Steve Weil, who owns Rockmount Ranch Wear on Wazee Street, told The Denver Post. “It’s a perfect storm for them. They have few options, and I don’t begrudge supporting them how we can. … But giving them the public right-of-way monopolizes public access perhaps in a way that’s detrimental to everyone else.”
For Weil’s business to reopen now, he says downtown Denver’s streets need to stay open for vehicles, which his customers use more than public transportation or other forms of transport. “Downtown has become an insufferable, incoherent puzzle of how to get from A to B,” Weil explained. “And this will make it worse.”
He’s especially concerned about paying property taxes come June. “There’s no relief on that. We need to do everything within our power to safely restart this economy, and not just for one segment but for every segment. What we do for one should not hurt the other.”
But Door thinks the Downtown Denver Partnership and other stakeholders can use this summer-long outdoor dining trial to answer concerns like Weil’s, plus other questions that will surely arise: Where do outdoor dining zones fit in? How long can they operate? Who uses them? Are they inclusive and equitable? And what about them doesn’t work?
“This isn’t about closing every street in the city; it’s about being strategic, being intentional,” Door said. “And it’s not one-size-fits-all, so it’s a good opportunity to explore.”
Inclusive, equitable, and not one-size-fits-all
Across Denver, outside business centers on Colorado Boulevard, along neighborhood roads in North Park Hill and just off Federal Boulevard by Jefferson Park, urban designer Matthew Bossler and a small cohort of community organizers are creating templates for outdoor dining areas of all sizes and shapes.
Bossler says he’s excited to see grassroots organizations planning their own versions of this effort, but he’s most eager to help out the businesses that wouldn’t otherwise have resources to dedicate now.
“Most communities of color don’t have business improvement districts in place,” he told The Denver Post. “That’s why we’re being intentional about taking the momentum BIDS have and supporting them, but really dedicating resources to those areas that don’t have that staff on hand” or the money set aside.
On Thursday morning, he’s giving a talk for Downtown Colorado Inc.‘s 500 statewide members. Bossler will discuss the playbook he and his team are creating “basically just to cut out all the guesswork that everybody’s trying to figure out on their own in little pieces all across the city right now,” he said. He’ll go over transportation consideration, design logistics, licensing, permitting and liability.
“The organizational work and facilitation — that’s the majority of the work that we’ve been doing,” Bossler said. “And we foresee that that need will persist for at least the next month in order to knock down those barriers.”
Meanwhile, at the city and state level, restaurateurs like Gruitch say this is a time to determine what Denver looks like over the summer and then for years to come.
“What are we willing to sacrifice in order to grow our city in the direction of a place that we want to live in?” she asked. “We could be a city where there aren’t any good restaurants, where the retail’s not there, and downtown is desolate, and then we won’t have to worry about the parking. It won’t be an issue. But I’d rather have an incredibly vibrant, successful city with some challenges than just kind of placating what we have now.”
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