Food News

Denver Restaurants Send Urgent Plea to Mayor: Give Us Outdoor Seating

This could be the scene throughout Denver if the city comes up with a plan to expand outdoor dining.
This could be the scene throughout Denver if the city comes up with a plan to expand outdoor dining. Danielle Lirette
A group of restaurant industry professionals and representatives have gotten together to send Mayor Michael Hancock a message: We'll need more outdoor seating in order to survive.

The group, which includes the directors of business improvement districts along Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard as well as many restaurant owners, has sent a letter to Mayor Hancock urging the city's newly formed Economic Relief and Recovery Committee to come up with a plan to allow restaurants and bars to expand seating and liquor licenses onto sidewalks, parking lots and, in some cases, even closed-off streets and alleys once restaurants are allowed to reopen.

Several European cities have already implemented similar ideas to give customers plenty of space while giving restaurants more revenue, since dining rooms will likely be allowed to reopen only at partial capacity. The Denver group hopes that the city can act quickly to implement its ideas, so that businesses will have clear directives as they begin setting up for reopening.

Dan Shah, director of the West Colfax Business Improvement District, and Matthew Bossler, an urban planner and landscape architect, are among those who have been working with seven other BIDs as well as other community organizations and business owners on the project, and Shah drafted the letter with his fellow BID directors and Jill Locantore of the Denver Streets Partnership, encouraging the city to take action soon.

"I live in Congress Park, and the closest retail center there is at 12th and Madison," Bossler says. "I reached out to several other people to brainstorm what this [plan] might look like at 12th and Madison. And it turned out that a lot of other folks have expressed interest in doing something similar. So we have formulated an infrastructure of how this can be implemented quickly; time is of the essence, obviously, because a lot of these businesses are already going under."

The Colorado Restaurant Association had already been devising a similar plan, Bossler notes, and they compared notes. And the group he's been working with has been in contact with the city's departments of Transportation and Infrastructure and Public Health and Environment to determine what hurdles might need to to be surmounted in instituting the plan.

"We have three goals," Bossler explains. "Number one, preventing the spread of coronavirus, and number two, carrying small businesses through this difficult time. We want to make sure we do what's right for them, since business owners know better than we do what will help them.

"The third goal is to provide a visual symbol of the community coming together," he adds.

"One of the things that's going to be vital for the survival of these businesses is taking advantage of the warmer months," Shah notes. "And we're especially concerned about the most vulnerable eateries and drinking establishments."

Here's the letter, which was signed by more than forty business owners and community leaders and was addressed to Hancock, Chief of Staff Alan Salazar, Deputy Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer, several government agency heads, and Andy Feinstein, Walter Eisenberg and Janice Sinden, who all sit on the Economic Relief and Recovery Committee:

Mayor Michael Hancock
Re: Outdoor Seating Rules Needed Urgently
Dear Mayor Hancock,
We are writing on behalf of Denver’s many restaurants and drinking establishments, including those in BIDs and business districts we work with along Colfax and Federal, with a sense of urgency to share strategies to ensure that the bottom doesn’t fall out completely for the small, diverse community of restaurants and drinking establishments that so many of us treasure.

The City has done a great job reclaiming many of our streets to give people the healthy breathing room they need. And to their credit, different departments in Mayor Hancock’s administration are also beginning to work on an initiative to create rules to allow for expedited patio and outdoor seating to provide patrons physical space to support these businesses safely.

We are writing to ask that this process proceed with the utmost urgency, with leadership from the Mayor for this simple reason: most of these businesses are already on life support, as we can testify from working with them as they seek to navigate loans, lease renegotiations, promotions etc. The uncertainties that they face, such as restoring supplies, staff and evaluating their capacity given precautions, will still be present on and after the pending reopening date. Many have adjusted their models, some with success, and some are already fortunate enough to have outdoor seating. Many are now shuttered and have to ramp up from zero.

When we begin to safely reopen restaurants, not only will we need to begin at limited capacity, but we know that our community will have more confidence in the safety of open-air outdoor dining. It's a matter of simple math. With at most half capacity indoors—maybe less, al fresco is the name of the game that will allow restaurants and drinking establishments of all stripes and flavors to survive by granting them access in the warm months to as many tables and chairs as possible. We believe that using parking lots, sidewalks, parking spaces and in some cases, taking space on local streets for outdoor seating and retail merchandising is an opportunity to support these establishments and allow the community to enjoy them safely. In order for establishments to be able to open and in many cases survive, patio/liquor license/outdoor seating rules need to be established almost immediately. This can happen in Denver based on suggestions from the Colorado Restaurant Association and as it has in cities around the world. We ask the Mayor and his team to structure the rules in order to make this operational before the end of the month. Restaurants need to be able to count on that happening in the next few weeks. 
Currently, outdoor seating is heavily regulated to ensure accessibility and pedestrian safety. Other obstacles include bus routes, trash removal, vehicle traffic and business insurance coverage. "There are a lot of regulatory barriers that if we were trying to do this pre-COVID would take a year and a half to overcome," Bossler notes. "And there's going to need to be some tough decisions and the acceptance of some level of risk."

"There are a lot of areas of opportunity that would require some flexibility and creative thinking," Shah adds.

But if Denver can create a way to ease restrictions and close some areas to automobile traffic, it would turn sidewalks and streets into open-air gathering spots that would give consumers more confidence to go out and support local businesses in a safe environment.

And that would give us all one more way to celebrate Colorado's beautiful summers.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation