City to keep program in place into fall that allows downtown businesses to use parking stalls for seating and sales

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

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

City leaders have agreed to keep rule changes in place through October that allow downtown businesses to use city sidewalks and parking spaces to operate outdoors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of their meeting Tuesday, Lawrence city commissioners said they were supportive of the downtown right-of-way program in its current form and would like to stick with the city resolution that keeps the program in place until Oct. 31. The program was scaled back a few weeks ago to include more parking, and commissioners agreed those changes had addressed issues with the program.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen — who along with Commissioner Stuart Boley voted against the temporary resolution to allow for the program — said Tuesday that she believed the city had addressed the concerns brought forward by downtown retailers that the program negatively impacted their businesses by removing parking in front of stores.

“It seems to me that we’ve addressed a lot of the issues that were brought forward by retailers and allowed those (businesses) who want to move forward to move forward,” Larsen said. “And I think they’re getting really creative and I really appreciate the work that they’re putting into it.”

As of last week, 16 businesses had applied for right-of-way permits to use the extra space. Some of those businesses have built wooden platforms in the former angled parking spaces to bring them level with the adjacent sidewalk and have otherwise built out the expansion areas with benches, umbrellas, plants and other decorative elements.

Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei echoed Larsen’s comments. Finkeldei also said he had spoken again with some of the downtown business owners who were opposed to the original format of the program, and all have told him they appreciate the program’s current form.

When the program was initially put in place, nearly all the angled parking spots that previously lined Massachusetts Street from Sixth Street to 11th Street were automatically replaced with parallel parking spots, creating space along the sidewalk and at the end of each block for businesses to use for outdoor seating or sales. The parallel parking along Massachusetts Street was designated as 15-minute parking.

However, fewer businesses than anticipated opted to use the expansion areas created along Massachusetts Street — amid both a spike in coronavirus cases and complaints about the layout’s functionality and aesthetics. In mid-July, the city reverted the unused expansion areas back to angled parking. Businesses can still apply for a free permit to use additional sidewalk space or parking stalls near their business for outdoor operations. Businesses can also continue to request to expand operations into the existing parallel parking spaces along the numbered side streets in the downtown.

One such business is Merchants Pub & Plate, and co-owner Emily Peterson told the commission that the program had been an invaluable opportunity for the restaurant.

“To expand outdoor dining is a lifeline, really, when it’s safer to be outdoors than be indoors at this time,” Peterson said. “And I believe it’s essential that we continue to have this support at the commission to be as nimble as possible as our community adapts and responds to the COVID concerns.”

The commission did not vote on the topic, because as currently written the city resolution keeps the program in place until Oct. 31, with the idea that it will be too cold for outdoor commerce after that date. City staff has said that the program could potentially be reinstated in the spring if needed.

The commission also discussed when enforcement of meter and other overstay parking violations downtown should be reinstated. That enforcement was discontinued in March because of the pandemic, and commissioners generally agreed that downtown was not yet busy enough to reinstate that enforcement. However, commissioners directed staff that conversations about how to phase in enforcement, perhaps by first enforcing meters and then parking garage limits, should occur in the next few weeks.

In other business, the commission voted unanimously to designate the Historic Resources Commission as the recommending body for reevaluation and consideration of historic markers. The topic came before the commission following a letter from the brother of Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice, who is requesting that a marker be placed on the spot where Rice was killed 50 years ago after a Lawrence police officer fired into a crowd of protesters, as the Journal-World previously reported. The commission referred that request to the HRC and directed the board to call a special meeting this month so that the request could be reviewed.

City Commission Meeting 08/04/20

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