Some restaurants look to provide outside dining; city to consider more flexibility for downtown restaurants

photo by: Screenshot/City of Lawrence

City of Lawrence Interim Planning Director Amy Miller speaks to the Lawrence City Commission and city staff over video conference, Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

Updated at 4:33 p.m. Wednesday

When restaurants begin to reopen for in-house dining, some of those dining options will actually be outside.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to approve changes to the city’s temporary special event permitting process that allow businesses more flexibility in how they use their properties, and additional options are being discussed.

Interim Planning Director Amy Miller told the commission that her office has been in contact with a lot of businesses, specifically restaurants, that are looking at ways to use their private parking lot to serve customers.

“A lot of the ones that we’ve been seeing … are restaurants that are looking to use their outdoor parking area for some outdoor dining in order to space diners out, more than just inside the restaurant, and be a little creative in how they’re serving their customers in light of the pandemic,” Miller said.

The changes approved as part of Tuesday’s meeting loosen restrictions on the permits and waive the permitting fees, according to a city staff memo to the commission. Specifically, the $50 permitting fee is waived, each permit is extended from 14 to 30 days, and businesses are allowed up to six permits per year instead of four. The changes will remain in place until the end of the year, after which Miller said they would be reevaluated.

Commissioners said they appreciated the flexibility being provided to businesses, and they encouraged city staff to continue working with the business community to provide more flexibility to safely serve customers during the pandemic.

“I think this is very important during these times to be flexible and help these businesses and help our community find ways to enjoy these businesses in a safe manner,” Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said.

Under Gov. Laura Kelly’s phased reopening plan, restaurants were allowed to open May 4, though with restrictions, as the Journal-World reported. If tables reach the mass-gathering limits, they must be 6 feet from other tables or must be separated by “physical barriers sufficient to prevent virus spread.” All businesses that reopen will be required to avoid having more than 10 people together in such a way that they can’t practice 6-foot social distancing. Douglas County health officials previously ordered restaurants to continue with carryout-only services through May 17 to continue preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the changes approved Tuesday, Miller told the commission that the city has also been in conversations with Downtown Lawrence Inc. and downtown businesses about providing more flexibility for those businesses. She said multiple options were being explored, including combining some uses not typically allowed under city code and providing more flexibility regarding alcohol sales.

“It’s a little early in the conversation for me to start suggesting things, but we are trying to work on all of that and see what we can come up with and see how we can handle that,” Miller said.

Miller said in an email to the Journal-World that there is already one special event permit in process, for Texas Roadhouse, 2329 Iowa St. She said the city has had conversations with other businesses, but no applications in process as of yet. She also clarified that the permits apply only to private property, not public right-of-way such as parking stalls downtown.

However, the special event permits are only the beginning of the conversation. Downtown Lawrence Inc. Executive Director Sally Zogry said as more downtown businesses, particularly restaurants, prepared to expand beyond curbside and online service, the conversation has been about re-visioning how downtown spaces can be used.

“We are thinking big and bold and a change, because this is not business as usual,” Zogry said. “Things are going to be different for a long time.”

Zogry noted that some downtown restaurants already have limited indoor seating, and further reducing capacity because of social distancing may not be financially viable. She said ideas being discussed included a more flexible city permitting process for sidewalk dining and the ability for dining or other business to expand into parking stalls or the street. She said the latter could include temporarily converting portions of some side streets to pedestrian areas that could be used for outdoor dining or other business.

Miller did not provide additional details about what is being considered for downtown to the Journal-World, but said more details would be provided on the City Commission’s agenda for next week.


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