Lawrence City Commission to consider extending downtown program allowing expanded outdoor dining, sales

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Outdoor seating at The Bourgeois Pig, 6. E. 9th St., is pictured on July 31, 2020.

City leaders will soon consider whether to extend a program that has allowed downtown businesses to repurpose sidewalks and parking near their storefronts for outdoor dining and other uses.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will receive requests to extend the temporary downtown right-of-way program beyond the current expiration date of Oct. 31 and direct city staff as appropriate, according to a city staff memo to the commission. Staff is recommending an extension of the program, which was put in place to give businesses more room to operate outdoors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It does appear that the program has been very popular and the mild weather has resulted in good use of these spaces in downtown Lawrence,” the memo states.

For the purposes of a future ordinance that will be brought back to the commission, city staff is asking for commissioners to discuss an end date for the extension of the program, as well as how closely to tie that date to health orders related to the coronavirus pandemic. The commission received multiple requests and pieces of correspondence about the program, with some asking the commission to extend it for several months, others through the end of next year, and some suggesting it should be a permanent option for downtown businesses.

Though the original format of the program had a slow start and prompted changes, there are now approximately 20 businesses participating. Several of those businesses appear to have invested a significant amount of money and time to repurpose the parking stalls in front of or alongside their buildings, adding wooden patios with railings, seating, lighting and other decorations. Currently, there are 18 downtown restaurants and bars that have signed up to use the free city right-of-way permit for their operations, according to information the city provided the Journal-World.

One of those restaurants, 715, recently reopened using the program after being closed for months. In an email to the city, 715 co-owner Matt Hyde requested that the commission extend the program through the end of next year. Hyde said that the three-month long-term forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for favorable outdoor conditions until the end of the year, and that the outdoor dining enabled by the program has provided a temporary lifeline for restaurants. He said it’s essential for the program to remain available.

“We greatly appreciate the steps The City has taken so far on this issue,” Hyde said in the email. He noted that the changes made to the program’s original format seem to be working, “but we’re going to need the continued help and support of The City to get through the current situation.”

Downtown Lawrence Inc. is also requesting that the city extend the program, though only through the end of February 2021. In a letter to the city, DLI Executive Director Sally Zogry said the program has been instrumental in driving both traffic and sales to downtown businesses and that it is essential the option remains available. Zogry said that DLI gathered feedback from its members over the past week and the unanimous response from restaurant owners, retailers, and service businesses has been to request an extension of the program.

“Life during COVID means that we are never sure of what changes the day, week, or month might bring and how we will need to adapt, or even temporarily close, our businesses,” Zogry said. “Having the continued flexibility and opportunity to expand outside may mean the difference between survival or permanent closure for many of our local businesses.”

The City Commission will convene virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, with limited staff members in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The city has asked that residents participate in the meeting virtually if they are able to do so, using temporary meeting procedures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Directions for submitting public comment and correspondence are included in the meeting agenda that is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

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