Outdoor dining in Boulder will continue after the coronavirus pandemic

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

A majority of Boulder City Council supported the establishment of a more formal, citywide outdoor dining pilot program that will run for five years, beginning once emergency orders are completed. This is tentatively set for August 31, although orders may be extended at that time depending 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 launched its business resumption program in May 2020 in response to the pandemic. Boulder’s business resumption program was approved by emergency order and has been amended several times.

Among other things, it added curbside drop-off and pick-up points, allowed for the expansion of the outdoor dining service area, and eased street closures along the western end of Pearl Street and on University Hill Event Street.

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

And Boulder City Council hopes continuing to provide expanded outdoor dining options will provide support for struggling restaurants. Restaurants have taken longer to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, board member Matt Benjamin noted.

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

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

The city intends to subsidize part of the cost of participating in the program, although it has not yet decided on the amount. Earlier this year, the city council earmarked $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the Outdoor Restoration Pilot Program and other business resumption efforts.

When drafting the pilot program guidelines, Boulder staff members considered safety, accessibility, fairness and operations. On Tuesday, the Council was generally in agreement with the direction of the program, although some members acknowledged that questions and concerns could arise as the process continues.

Boulder’s Acting Director of Community Vitality Cris Jones noted that it will be critical to ensure that outdoor dining and potential street closures do not prohibit access and that the city”s ensure that we think about how all people could experience these spaces”.

Currently, some outdoor catering facilities block bike racks or prohibit people in wheelchairs from accessing them. It is important that this issue be addressed as part of the official program, board members noted.

“Accessibility is super, super important. Possibly the most important factor we need to consider here,” said board member Bob Yates. “Because if we have members of our community who can’t avail of this wonderful thing, then we haven’t done our job.”

In a separate but related conversation, the City Council expressed support for keeping the west end of Pearl Street closed, although there was less consensus on the issue and the council acknowledged that it is is a complex problem with advantages and disadvantages.

Accessibility may have been a particular concern when it comes to street closures, and that’s part of the hesitation of businesses in the west.

A number of West End restaurant owners, including Jay Elowsky, owner of Pasta Jay’s, and Dave and Dana Query, owners of Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar, West End Tavern and Centro Mexican Kitchen, have said they would prefer to reopen the street to allow more parking and facilitate customer access to their establishments.

In an 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 experience financial impacts depending on the success of West Pearl’s closure.

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

“Location, location, location,” Elowsky said. “For us, it’s the location of foot traffic, the location of car traffic, the location of parking. Majority of West Pearl Street businesses would like to reclaim this as it influences the quality of our business.

City sales tax revenue data shows “restaurants” on the west end of Pearl have been slower than the east end and the city in general to recover financially from the pandemic.

Council went back and forth about closing streets, and Council Member Nicole Speer asked if staff had a recommendation.

“We hesitated to provide a specific recommendation, but we would certainly prefer to be conservative,” Jones said, noting that the data collected did not provide a clear consensus regarding the street closure.

Had it not been for the emergency circumstances, Boulder would not have closed a street without further analysis, he added.

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

Board members also acknowledged that there is some awkwardness in terms of timing and process. According to some, closing the street and then reopening it while an analysis is carried out, then closing it again could be more stressful for businesses.

Generally, Council, whether or not it supports the current street closures, has said it would like to take a more holistic look at how space is used in downtown Boulder. Council members also agreed that outdoor dining updates should be frequent in the months leading up to the end of emergency orders.

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