Lawrence City Commission expresses interest in making outdoor dining setup a permanent option downtown; proposal to come forward at a future date

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Outdoor seating at Merchants Pub and Plate, 746 Massachusetts St., is pictured on July 31, 2020.

The patio and outdoor dining areas constructed in parking stalls downtown during the coronavirus pandemic could be allowed to stay.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to direct city staff to develop a proposal for a long-term version of the now temporary right-of-way or “parklet” program. The program has allowed downtown businesses to repurpose sidewalks and parking stalls directly in front of their storefronts for outdoor dining or other uses.

Though commissioners acknowledged concerns about patio design and loss of downtown parking, they said they wanted to consider making the program a long-term option for downtown businesses. Mayor Brad Finkeldei said that he’s generally been hearing that people like the program, but that there could definitely be some improvements.

“I do think it’s a program that has merit,” Finkeldei said. “But it’s a program that we need to look at and try to fix some of the issues and find that right balance.”

The city created the program in June 2020, and it was initially set to expire after four months, but as the pandemic persisted the commission later extended the program through the end of this year. Instead of letting that expiration date stand, city staff recommended the development of a proposal for a long-term version of the program that the commission will consider at a future meeting.

Jennifer McKnight, who owns Arizona Trading Co. at 736 Massachusetts St., said the program in its current form is too expansive, and if it were to continue she thinks there should be limits on the number of parklets allowed overall and per block, and the number of parking spaces any one parklet can occupy. McKnight also said that consideration should be given to whether a restaurant uses the parklet for both lunch and dinner, as well as how many days out of the year the parklets are used.

“The irony is that when the restaurants aren’t using the parklets, because it’s raining or snowing or too hot or too cold, that’s right when retail customers need convenient parking the most,” McKnight said.

Regarding parking, program administrator Enrico Villegas said there were currently 22 parklets, and that they occupied a total of 50 parking stalls — 38 stalls on Massachusetts Street and 12 on side streets. He said there are 366 parking stalls on Massachusetts Street and 2,988 total in the downtown, but that there are some areas, such as East Eighth Street and the 700 block of Massachusetts, with high concentrations of parklets.

Several downtown businesses submitted letters to the commission in favor of creating a long-term version of the program, with some saying the program had saved their business. Lawrence resident Sean Whittier submitted a letter saying he thought the positive benefits of the program far outweighed the loss of some parking spots on Massachusetts Street.

“Downtown Lawrence should be occupied and enjoyed by people, not cars, and the expansion of human activity into areas previously reserved for automobiles has made Downtown more vibrant and more inviting,” Whittier said.

Finkeldei said he agreed with McKnight that limits should be considered, including limits on how many parklets are allowed per block and when and how parklets are used. The city has been waiving sidewalk dining licensing and other fees for the program, for a total of $24,000 in waived fees, and Finkeldei and other commissioners agreed that an appropriate fee for use of the city’s right-of-way and design requirements for the parklets would need to be considered as part of the proposal for a long-term program.

Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley said she would like to consider a seasonal option for businesses not planning to use the parklets year round, including the consideration of storage for the patio elements so retailers could use the parking spaces during the holiday shopping season. Commissioner Stuart Boley said consideration should be given to how many days of the year the parklets are being used.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she wanted to make sure that the commission gets a look at the community engagement process before it moves forward. At the direction of the commission, staff’s first step will be to bring back a community input plan, which will include residents and downtown businesses.


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