City leaders approve regulations, fees for long-term program to allow patios in downtown parking stalls

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The "parklet" patio of 715 restaurant, 715 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 18, 2021.

After some debate about increasing the fee beyond the proposed $1,000 per parking stall, city leaders adopted the proposed long-term regulations for a program that has temporarily allowed downtown businesses to construct patios and outdoor dining areas in downtown parking stalls.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 4-1, with Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen opposed, to adopt an ordinance that establishes limitations, design criteria and other regulations for the “parklets,” and charges businesses $1,000 per year per parking stall used. Though a few commissioners said they would consider increasing the fee, ultimately commissioners decided to stick with what was proposed, noting that fees could be increased in the future if appropriate.

Fees for the program were set to recoup lost parking revenue and cover city costs of operating the program, according to a city staff memo. Larsen proposed increasing the fee and further limiting the number of parklets allowed. City staff said the $1,000 was based on the average amount collected on downtown meters, and Larsen said it should be more because to actually use the meter all day would cost substantially more. She said if a retail customer were to park in the same spot for the same time period, they would pay more, and she didn’t see that as fair.

“They are really getting the short end of the stick, retailers, on this whole program,” Larsen said. She also said that the parking fund is projected to take in approximately $225,000 less next year than what it spends, and that the city might need to reexamine what it needs to charge to fully recover costs.

While other commissioners said the $1,000 fee did seem low to them, they wanted to keep it there to initiate the program. Commissioner Amber Sellers said she thought it was reasonable and the city could always revisit it if need be.

“If we’re just trying to cover costs, then it’s good where it’s at,” Sellers said. “If we feel there needs to be an additional recoupment, then we need to say that and discuss what that amount’s going to look like.”

Several downtown restaurant owners have expressed support for continuation of the program, with a few reiterating Tuesday that the program had allowed them to continue serving customers safely during the pandemic and remained important as they continue to face financial challenges. A few retailers said the parklets take away valuable parking spaces and only benefit restaurants, and they asked for increased fees or for the number and size of parklets to be further limited.

The ordinance combines the parklet program with the city’s long-standing sidewalk dining program, and Commissioner Brad Finkeldei pointed out that the ordinance also includes an increase in the fees for that program. Under the new ordinance, the sidewalk dining program increased from $3 per square foot to $5 per square foot for businesses that also choose to use sidewalk space.

The ordinance limits how many parking stalls a “parklet” may take up and how many parklets are allowed per block. Specifically, the draft ordinance allows a parklet to contain a maximum of three diagonal parking spaces and two parallel parking spaces. There is also a limit of 12 parking spaces per city block that can be licensed for use as parklets. Participation in the program is first-come, first-served, and once 12 spaces in a block are exhausted applicants to the program will be placed on a waiting list.

Larsen also proposed decreasing the number of parking spaces available for parklets per block from 12 to nine. However, Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Mark Hecker said 12 stalls was arrived at because that is the most stalls currently taken up in any block, in the 700 block of Massachusetts St. Commissioners ultimately decided to keep the limitations as proposed, with Finkeldei saying that he thought the design regulations for the program and the cost of installing a parklet would also be limiting factors.

The ordinance covers both aesthetics and design of the dining areas. It calls for parklet or sidewalk dining areas to be finished with high-quality, weather-resistant materials that fit within the context of downtown, among other specifics. Regulations include a design that maintains at least a 4-foot-wide opening between adjacent parklets for fire safety access, aligns with access requirements established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and meets stipulations for building materials, use of lighting, and the height and location of barriers or railings, among other regulations. The ordinance also includes regulations on the use of items such as heaters, umbrellas, windblocks and electrical connections.

The ordinance requires businesses currently operating a parklet or sidewalk dining to apply for the new version of the program by Sept. 2. Those businesses will then have until Jan. 1 to come into compliance with the new regulations. For those businesses that do not want to continue outdoor dining, all fixtures should be removed from the sidewalk and parking stalls by Sept. 2.

In other business, the commission:

•Voted 4-1, with Finkeldei opposed, to exceed the “revenue neutral” rate for the 2023 budget and propose a tax rate of 33.367 mills. Kansas law requires governing bodies to notify their taxpayers and have a public hearing if city leaders are going to consider a budget with a property tax rate increase or a flat property tax rate that results in property owners paying more in taxes because of an increase in assessed property value. Because of an approximately 12% increase in property values, the city is projected to collect $4.7 million in new taxes. In order to be revenue neutral the city would need to decrease its tax rate from 33.290 mills to 29.075 mills.

The proposed rate is .077 mills higher than the current tax rate, owing to the library’s board decision to increase its mill levy by that amount. The proposed rate represents the city’s maximum expenditures for the 2023 budget. Once the maximum is set, the commission may lower it later in the budget process but cannot increase it. The commission will hold the public hearing for the budget on Aug. 23.

•Voted 4-1, with Mayor Courtney Shipley opposed, to approve a six-month drinking establishment license with John Brown’s Underground, 7 E. Seventh St. Such licenses are typically two years, but John Brown’s did not meet the city’s requirement that no more than 45% of its sales come from alcohol. A memo to the commission states that John Brown’s is considering submitting a request for a code amendment that would affect the zoning and bring the business into compliance, and that staff recommends the six-month license so the amendment can be proposed and considered. Shipley noted that John Brown’s has failed to comply with city rules regarding the percentage of alcohol sales in the past, and that as long as the requirement was in place they should follow it.


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