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With the creation of a citywide pilot program, the expanded outdoor dining options Boulder began offering in the first months of the pandemic are officially here to stay.

Boulder City Council in a public hearing on Tuesday unanimously agreed to implement the five-year pilot program.

It allows restaurants, brewpubs, taverns, wineries and distilleries that have available space within 150 feet of their entrances or directly in front of the building the business is located within to continue offering expanded outdoor dining by applying for the program and paying for a permit and parklet infrastructure from the city.

Boulder will subsidize some of that cost, though the amount depends on whether a business is using space in the public right of way or on private property and whether they have individually purchased infrastructure or are leasing it from the city.

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.

The outdoor dining pilot program is an idea Boulder officials and community leaders have been exploring since last fall, more than a year after the city first began its business recovery program in May 2020. It was approved via emergency ordinance and has been amended several times.

Among other things, the program 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.

The pilot program approved by the City Council on Tuesday does not include the continuation of the west end Pearl Street closure, which will be discussed separately at a later date.

The public hearing on Tuesday was a quick one, with just one person speaking generally in favor of it.

But more people have weighed in during past discussions on the subject.

For example, in a survey issued by the Downtown Boulder Partnership and the city, 49% of all restaurants and 60% of current program participants indicated that they were “very likely” to participate when presented with the concept for a downtown outdoor dining pilot program without any information about potential associated fees.

That program has now expanded to include the whole city.

With the passage of the pilot program, Boulder will now open applications on Monday, June 27. When the application period closes July 15, the city intends to begin purchasing parklet infrastructure.

After that, a two-phase transition process begins. Restaurants that opt against participating in the pilot program must remove infrastructure by Aug. 31. Restaurants that choose to participate can transition their infrastructure through Oct. 31.

Once the initial program is established, the city will coordinate an annual application period from Feb. 1 to March 1, beginning in 2023 and for each year thereafter for the duration of the program.

Councilmember Matt Benjamin raised concerns about the Aug. 31 end date, which he worried would affect establishments currently offering outdoor dining but opting out of participation in the new program. He said he’d prefer to give them until October when the weather cools.

However, that is the date the current emergency orders allowing businesses to extend their footprint into the public right of way will expire. Allowing businesses that opt out of the pilot program to continue offering expanded options would be too complicated on the administrative side and could pose equity issues, staff argued.

“We have all these folks that are doing a lot of work to get into compliance with our code and follow the procedures and regulations that we have put in place, and then you’ll have a group of folks that will just continue doing what they’re doing and basically get a free pass,” Deputy City Attorney Sandra Llanes said.

The City Council’s approval included a two-year check-in at which time the success of the program will be considered.

When that time comes, Councilmember Nicole Speer expressed her hope that city staff will have found ways to include the perspective of a more diverse representation of the community. Staff did use Boulder’s racial equity instrument when considering this program but acknowledged that the timeline did not permit gathering as much input as it would have liked.

“I come from the default perspective that if we’re not actively making a positive difference for racial equity we are risking going in the other direction,” Speer said.

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