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When pandemic-related emergency orders end, expanded outdoor dining options in Boulder will remain.

A majority of the Boulder City Council supported instating a more formal citywide outdoor dining pilot program that will last five years, beginning once emergency orders end. That’s tentatively set for Aug. 31, though orders could be extended at that time based on the number of coronavirus cases.

An outdoor dining pilot program is an idea the city has been exploring since last fall, more than a year after Boulder first began its business recovery program in May 2020 as a response to the pandemic. The Boulder Business Recovery Program was approved via emergency ordinance and has been amended several times.

Among other things, it added curbside drop-off and pickup locations, allowed outdoor dining service area expansions and facilitated street closures along the west end of Pearl Street and on the University Hill Event Street.

Since its inception, Boulder says the business recovery program has helped more than 100 local businesses.

And the Boulder City Council hopes that continuing to offer expanded outdoor dining options will provide support to struggling restaurants. Restaurants have been slower to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, Councilmember Matt Benjamin noted.

“It’s just critical that we remember (restaurants and the hospitality industry) are a heavily impacted part of our business community that’s going to lag behind the others,” Benjamin said.

The outdoor dining pilot program the City Council supported Tuesday will allow restaurants across the city to extend their operations a maximum of 500 square feet into the public right-of-way and on private property. The City Council also supported relaxing Boulder’s land use regulations, which typically would require a standard use review process for businesses looking to expand their footprint.

The city intends to subsidize some of the cost for program participation, though it’s not yet decided how much. The City Council earlier this year designated $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the outdoor dining pilot program and other business recovery efforts.

As it formed the draft guidelines for the pilot program, Boulder staff members considered safety, accessibility, equity and operations. The Council on Tuesday generally agreed with the direction of the program, though some members acknowledged that questions and concerns could arise as the process continues.

Boulder’s Interim Director of Community Vitality Cris Jones noted it will be vital to ensure outdoor dining and potential street closures do not prohibit access and that the city is “making sure that we are thinking about how all people might experience these spaces.”

Currently, some outdoor dining structures block bike racks or prohibit those with wheelchairs from accessing them. It’s important that this is addressed through the formal program, councilmembers noted.

“Accessibility is super, superimportant. Arguably the most important factor we need to consider here,” Councilmember Bob Yates said. “Because if we have members of our community who cannot avail themselves to this wonderful thing, then we haven’t done our jobs.”

In a separate but related conversation, the City Council expressed support for keeping the west end of Pearl Street closed, though there was less of a consensus on the issue and the Council recognized it’s a complex problem with pros and cons.

Accessibility has perhaps been of particular concern when it comes to the street closure, and it’s part of the hesitancy on the part of the west end businesses.

A number of the west end restaurant owners, including Jay Elowsky, who owns Pasta Jay’s, and Dave and Dana Query, who own Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar, West End Tavern and Centro Mexican Kitchen, have said they would prefer reopening the street to allow for more parking and to make it easier for customers to access their establishments.

In open comment Tuesday, Elowsky urged the Council to remember that the “real stakeholders” in the conversation are those with rent or loan obligations who will face financial impacts based on whether the West Pearl closure is successful.

Many of the businesses on the western end of Pearl Street chose to open their businesses where they did because it attracted Boulder locals and visitors, he noted.

“Location, location, location,” Elowsky said. “For us, it’s the location of pedestrian traffic, location of drive-by traffic, location of parking. The majority of businesses on west Pearl Street would like to have that back because it does influence how well we’ve done business.”

City sales tax revenue data shows that “eating places” on the western end of Pearl have been slower than the eastern end and the city in general to financially recover from the pandemic.

The Council went back and forth some in terms of the street closure, and Councilmember Nicole Speer asked whether staff had a recommendation.

“We have been hesitant to provide a specific recommendation, but we would certainly err more toward being conservative,” Jones said, noting that the data collected did not provide a clear consensus regarding the street closure.

If there had not been emergency circumstances, Boulder would not have closed a street without more thorough analysis, he added.

“We just haven’t had the time to do that yet,” he said.

Councilmembers also acknowledged there is a certain awkwardness in terms of timing and process. Closing the street then reopening it while an analysis is conducted and then closing it again could be more stressful for businesses, some argued.

Generally, the Council, whether in support of the current street closure or not, said they’d like to take a more holistic look at the way space is used in downtown Boulder. Councilmembers also agreed that outdoor dining updates should be frequent in the months leading up to the end of emergency orders.