At their meeting next week, City Council will discuss whether expanded outdoor dining should continue or be phased out when the current emergency order expires on Oct. 31.
Let’s start with some background. As the coronavirus pandemic shut down indoor dining last year, Boulder, like cities across the country, moved quickly to expand seating outdoors. West Pearl was closed to traffic; parklets popped up on East Pearl, Spruce and Walnut Streets. Parking lots all over town were quickly transformed into outdoor patios. Liquor laws, both local and state, were loosened dramatically to allow drinks to be served far beyond the boundaries imposed by liquor licenses.
All of this was done without the usual lengthy process involving traffic studies, neighborhood outreach, public hearings and design reviews. Both state and city officials faced a crisis and they moved quickly to cut through the red tape and deal with it. Kudos to them for their swift response. It saved many small businesses from certain failure.
Now, over a year later, we can look back and assess whether the rush to make these changes was successful and whether they should be extended. The answer to both questions is clearly yes!
COVID-19 or not, people love to eat outdoors and the expanded options downtown and across Boulder have proved wildly popular with both customers and businesses. A survey done last spring by my firm, RRC Associates, showed that 85% of 597 respondents in Boulder favored making some or all of the changes permanent. The Downtown Boulder Partnership surveyed businesses and saw similar support from restaurants and retailers for keeping the expanded outdoor space after COVID.
Many cities across the country already have made the changes permanent. Others, like Denver, extended their program until the end of 2022. Boulder’s City Council should do the same. Then they should direct staff to use the next year to evaluate the impacts and make adjustments to the various components of the program.
And yes, there are adjustments that need to be made. First up is how the outdoor areas look. The expansions were mostly done in a mad rush during a pandemic and many restaurants used whatever materials they could find to create their outdoor spaces. Concrete barriers, traffic cones, plywood and plastic fencing should be replaced with materials that are both safe and more attractive than much of what is out there now.
Another consideration is cost. So far, all of this extra space has been free of charge. However, the city is losing parking revenue and incurring extra expenses to monitor and administer the changes. Restaurants should be willing to offset those expenses by paying for the additional space. City staff should calculate the true costs and propose reasonable fees for outdoor permits.
Of course, alcohol is part of the equation as well. Both local and state governments will need to adjust their liquor laws to permanently accommodate the expanded outdoor serving areas.
The expansion of outdoor seating and pedestrian zones was forced on us by a terrible pandemic. But it has become tremendously popular with both customers and businesses. I hope our City Council will agree and join the hundreds of cities across the country that have already extended their programs or made them permanent.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org to blog