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Boulder continues exploring outdoor dining options, street closures as coronavirus response

City Council urges furious pace of processing applications for outdoor food, liquor service

Tom Dahlquist reads outside Urban Outfitters on Pearl Street on Friday in Boulder. The city is considering closing Pearl Street between 9th and 11th streets to car traffic to allow restaurants to serve sit-down diners outdoors. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)
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Ideal Market co-owner Steve LeBlang has restaurant tenants making preparations to serve Boulder diners out in the shopping center’s parking lot this summer.

“The jobs are there, we just need businesses to reopen,” LeBlang said.

That area will not be the only one where luring hungry residents to grab a bite outdoors becomes the new model for local eateries.

City Council committed to doing everything the municipal government can, including likely closing Pearl Street to most vehicle traffic for at least two additional blocks adjacent to the walking mall’s west end, to help restaurants make it through an economically crippling coronavirus pandemic.

With an announcement expected on new guidance for restaurants reopening from Gov. Jared Polis expected no later than Monday, local restaurateurs and city officials alike are working to react as deftly as possible to facilitate a transition to licensing outdoor food service and alcohol sales. Draft rules were released this week for restaurants by the state.

The city staff has proposed waiving temporarily minimum parking requirements for restaurants and possibly renting public parking spaces to allow tables to be placed in them for service, which could require a license that can normally take as long as 15 business days for the city to process, plus respective $234.50 and $150 city and state fees per space with alcohol service. Shorter and less expensive processing times are available for restaurant applicants that want to rent spaces without alcohol service, with an $84.50 right-of-way permit generally required.

“We will not be using the Beverage Licensing Authority as part of the approval process, except when there is a significant amount of public opposition that has been voiced during the 10-day notice period” for modified liquor service applications, Assistant City Attorney David Gehr said.

A licensing window for between the end of this month and the end of June has been pictured by city staff.

Peg Romano, owner of the restaurant Via Perla on the west end of Pearl Street, changes the flower arrangement outside her business on Friday in Boulder. Boulder is considering closing Pearl Street between 9th and 11th streets to car traffic to allow restaurants to serve sit-down diners outdoors. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Whether the city should charge any fees, and if it could speed up processing times of applications for restaurant use of outdoor public space to just a day or two was questioned by Mayor Pro Tem Bob Yates, who advocated a more bold approach than only the parking spot closures envisioned by city staff. Council on Tuesday may discuss full-on vehicle traffic closures on Pearl Street and the University Hill Event Street, for at least two blocks west of the Pearl Street Mall between Ninth and 11th streets to allow pedestrians to walk the streets where cars would normally be, and restaurants to extend table service onto the areas drivers would usually park.

“I think that $84.50 … charge is kind of nickle-and-dime. The amount that we’ll receive in food and beverage tax will swamp that in a matter of hours,” Yates said Tuesday to Council. “I know we looked for the lowest fee we could find, I would suggest zero.”

In a later interview he stressed the importance restaurants play in local economics.

“It’s not just restaurants. The retailers that are near restaurants depend on foot traffic, too,” Yates said. “There is a certain ecosystem that exists in shopping centers and on Pearl Street Mall that rely on restaurants as key components.”

The two blocks of Pearl east of the walking mall were also discussed for a possible traffic closure, but with fewer restaurants in that area than on the west end, officials may take a wait-and-see approach in that section, Yates said, noting that far more public engagement over months would take place normally outside of a public health and economic emergency over a proposal as critical as closing a section of street.

“This is very much evolving real-time. Like so much with the COVID crisis, we’re trying to make the best decisions we can with limited information on a very sharp time frame,” Yates said. Officials will likely take a look at the city’s road map to gauge other potential areas where a road closure could facilitate business for restaurants and retailers.

“We are still developing an optimal approach to supporting businesses on 13th Street and College Avenue and look forward to hearing next week about alternative options for using public rights of way for this purpose, such as expanding sidewalk dining areas or creating parklets in on-street parking spaces,” Jake Hudson-Humphrey, marketing coordinator for The Hill Boulder nonprofit, said in a letter to Council. “… Businesses on the Hill, which already face decreased business in the summertime, have been hit hard by COVID-19. Expanding the possibilities for socially distanced dining is a tangible way to help the Hill adapt to the new dining needs and habits the pandemic has created.”

Restaurants eyeing privately owned parking lots in shopping centers and strip malls will have to work out deals with their landlords and relevant property owners to use the outdoor space for service, officials said.

Easy access for drivers to get pickup and takeout meals from downtown should be maintained when allowing sit-down dining to return outdoors, said Joe Romano, operator of the The Med, Brasserie Ten Ten and Via Perla. That’s because restaurateurs are unsure of where consumer behavior will steer demand as the virus remains top of mind for many across the globe. There is a chance pickup meals will remain a preference for many, and outdoor, socially distanced dining desires will be limited.

City staff appears to be planning to implement designated curbside pickup zones on 13th and College on the Hill, and in areas of roads dotted throughout the downtown area.

“It’ll be weather-dependent,” Romano said of outdoor dining. “My worry would be where do you put people if they’re sitting outside and it starts raining. … I think anything (the city) is trying to do is going to be beneficial. They’re going to try to accommodate a whole range of everything.”

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