Aspen City Council wants to take small, but immediate steps to increase outdoor dining capacity. With public health orders limiting restaurant seating to 50 percent capacity to slow the spread of COVID-19, the additional outdoor seating area could help make ends meet for the industry.
Pete Rice, division manager with the city’s engineering department, presented council with several options for what the expanded seating could look like at a work session Monday night. Options included leaving dining status quo, converting individual parking spaces to business use on an application basis, or shutting down entire streets to vehicular traffic to allow for a more of a promenade dining experience.
“[The full closure] is the easiest to implement quickly from a staff standpoint, and definitely if you keep vehicles out of the mix it's the safest option out of the three,” Rice said.
But, in feedback from an online survey and from direct communication with restaurant owners, there is a desire to leave some parking available on each street to allow for to-go orders, which restaurants will likely remain relying on during the public health “safer at home” phase.
“This is the best case scenario for restaurants, it provides great added space,” Rice said. “Definitely more mobility for everyone.”
The idea is that both restaurants and retail shops could apply for the street space. Rice told the council that allowing traffic flow around the hybrid setup may diminish user experience.
“Patrons may not enjoy eating next to adjacent cars or shopping if cars are driving down the roadway,” he said.
The complete shutdown would be the cheapest option at about $4,000 per block which would come out of the COVID-19 recovery package already set aside by council. A street modification option that allows some traffic or parking would be $24,000 per block, and a more concerted effort of activating spaces with raised decking for seating or “parkletts” to distinguish commerce from traffic could raise the price per block to $125,000. The council would need to give direction on the funding mechanism for the higher priced options. For now, the city is waiving the fee to apply for the right-of-way infringement to expand capacity.
The majority of council said they may be open to street shutdowns at some point, but in the interest of changing policy quickly and cheaply, directed staff to open up applications for individual parking space use on Tuesday and report back in the case of a large enough congregation of applications that it would merit a street closure. Staff will likely be reporting back to council next week.
The council did not like the idea of the aesthetic of the jersey barriers that would need to be used to protect pedestrians and diners from traffic in the mixed-use streets. Council member Skippy Mesirow suggested collaborating with Aspen’s artisan community to decorate the structures and create community buy-in.
“We have a long history of identifying as a community of the arts and we've been looking for ways to celebrate the arts more,” Mesirow said.
Councilmember Rachel Richards disagreed, saying the use of community artists would be off brand for Aspen.
“I just don't want something where Aspen went childish and cheesy because we didn't have anything else to do,” Richards said.
She also asked that the city only grant street-level access to established brick and mortar businesses, so that local shops are not competing for sales with local artisans who do not have rent to pay.
Mayor Torre called the street expansion efforts a good collaboration between government, business and the public. He also cautioned that the expanded footprint is not a signal for people to let their guard down when it comes to social distancing.
“We have our metrics. We will be dictated by medical data,” Torre said. “It is not impossible that we see steps backwards toward shutting down or limiting business.”