|IN THE KNOW
Enhancing Public Space with Outdoor Dining
posted by: Errin Welty
Although outdoor dining season is coming to an end in Wisconsin, the seasonal slowdown is an optimal time to revise existing regulations or plan for new public space amenities. Many communities in Wisconsin are experimenting with the idea of parklets, pop-up parks or other public space improvement programs. These seasonal amenities can be an inexpensive way to accomplish a number of community objectives, including increasing the sense of vitality and activity in the district, improving business performance and satisfying oft-cited customer demand for additional outdoor and family-friendly amenities.
The ways that individual communities have introduced these public space enhancements are as diverse as the communities themselves. Some communities install temporary landscaping in vacant lots or underutilized parking stalls, repurposing them for public use. Others use decking to extend sidewalk space into one or more parking spaces, expanding narrow sidewalks to accommodate patio tables. Communities with vacant lots or unsightly mid-block alley openings can employ food trucks as a way to turn these spaces into a destination. Below are some profiles of communities of various sizes that have made the effort to rewrite ordinances and make an investment in underutilized spaces with great success.
Cedar Rapids: Cedar Rapids completed its second year of offering parklets to downtown businesses. The program was tested in 2013 with two restaurants, expanding to 4 in 2014. Additionally, the program has encouraged other businesses in areas with larger sidewalks to offer traditional outdoor dining areas. In order to address concerns about safety and building codes, the city owns and maintains the parklets, including installation and off-season storage. Businesses must purchase a special permit ($10) to host the parklets, which must be inspected upon installation. They must purchase and store their own furniture. The 20-foot-by-8-foot patios seat 30 to 35 people and cost $15,000 to build. The City now owns four parklets. The City is also placing matching planters in the median near blocks with parklets to help slow traffic with the anticipated growth of pedestrian traffic.
West Allis: West Allis approved the use of ‘pedlets’ along Greenfield Avenue during the 2013 season. Because of high traffic volumes on Greenfield Avenue, West Allis piloted a pedlet model that places diners near the building and extends the sidewalk area into parking spaces via an elevated boardwalk. Urban Joe Café actually received a $2,000 grant to construct the wooden patio deck, which will be owned by the business. The business will also be responsible for removing and storing the deck during the winter months. Originally, the plan was for the patio tables to be placed on the deck, but traffic, noise and liquor license concerns caused the city to allow the seating to be placed on the sidewalk and pedestrian traffic to be diverted onto the new deck, which features additional planters.
Sturgeon Bay/Princeton: Both Sturgeon Bay and Princeton have benefited from the food truck movement as a way to add needed variety to the dining scene while activating previously vacant spaces. Nistebox, in Sturgeon Bay, started in a vacant lot along a major automotive corridor, and has moved to an alleyway along the popular 3rd Avenue shopping district. The popular taco truck uses seasonal décor, lighting and temporary furnishings (including, sometimes, astroturf) to transform an alleyway into a funky dining destination. Similarly, Horseradish Alley Café in Princeton is a sandwich and sliders food truck started by a business owner based on his observations that many pedestrians were choosing not to walk past a vacant lot adjacent to his business. Since the district was also lacking in quality casual dining options, Horseradish was born. Although both businesses are private operations with agreements to use private lots, this type of operation requires significant assistance from the local municipality to adopt or amend ordinances to allow non-traditional and seasonal businesses and accommodate signage, access and other needs.
For communities hoping to launch a local program in 2016, there are some best practices to keep in mind. Studies have found that the most successful parklets or pop-up spaces meet at least one of several criteria. They are either 1) located outside a business that features high-volume/high-turnover food items or services, 2) located near a business with limited indoor seating/waiting space, and/or 3) located adjacent to businesses with large windows that help outside customers feel connected to the space. Of course, not all public spaces are designed to boost sales, and some green spaces are added simply to encourage resting or reading, and include amenities such as seating, shade or little free libraries. These spaces are especially appreciated by older shoppers and families with children, and can extend the visit period (and spending) of these groups. For spaces not directly tied to a business, at least 30 percent of users in a Citylab survey were not associated with any individual business in the district, but simply found the space appealing, including an even mix of women and men.
When designing a space locally, be sure to consider some of the challenges. A survey of the local infrastructure will be necessary to determine where patio spaces are possible. To ensure accessibility, a five-foot sidewalk area must be maintained at all times, meaning that sidewalk areas with trees, planters, benches or other amenities may not be able to accommodate patio seating even with a parklet. Parklets or pedlets that put pedestrians or diners into the public right of way will also need to be engineered to provide protections for users and also so as not to damage adjacent parked vehicles, likely requiring engineering review or use of pre-approved models. Finally, nearly every community will need to review and update local ordinances. Common ordinances that may be affected include those related to outdoor dining, liquor license premises, sandwich boards or outdoor signage, seasonal uses, umbrellas, outdoor lighting or music, and parking. However, with sufficient lead time over the winter months, future benefits for customers, visitors and businesses can be substantial and well worth the effort.
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Outdoor dining has been found to increase restaurant business by up to 20 percent during summer months. Additionally, a study by Food Service Restaurant magazine found that diners are willing to wait longer for service when seated at an outdoor table, and that 43 percent of diners will spend more in alcoholic beverages at an outdoor patio than if seated indoors. Younger demographics are especially inclined to select a restaurant based on the presence of outdoor dining areas. Communities without the ability to add parklets can help market businesses that are able to add side alley or rear patios by including ‘outdoor dining’ as a search term in their online business directories.