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Boise State Public Radio: Boise Shutting Out Cars To Help Businesses Rebound After Pandemic

By Sasa Woodruff & Troy Oppie,

There’s a growing concern on how scores of businesses will recover from the unprecedented economic crisis from COVID-19. Cities across the country are closing some streets to motorized traffic and Boise is trying this too to help Boise businesses spur a comeback.

The city quickly moved to pass a resolution in May to help businesses expand outdoor seating space. The first stop for the plan was the typically bustling business district of Eighth Street in downtown Boise. Many businesses here re-opened last month and the restaurants, bars and cafes are starting to come back with its wide sidewalks and patio seating.

Dave Krick owns some of the most popular places here: Bittercreek Ale HouseRed Feather Lounge and Diablo & Sons Saloon. He said restaurants were operating on tight margins even before the stay-at-home order shut his businesses down.

“It’s not the most lucrative business and so being down for even a day can be, you know, a month’s worth of profit,” he explained.

But reopening this month also meant that restaurants would have to limit tables to make sure customers were physically distanced, which means even tighter margins.

The City of Boise looked to Eighth Street to start putting its May resolution into place. It already owns the street, so it didn’t need the county to sign off on it.

Krick has supported the idea for a while.

“I would certainly like to see the automobiles taken out of the equation on Eighth Street, but it also is important that it feels like there’s vibrancy on the street,” he said.

And for cities that have done this, it works, according to Elizabeth Deakin, an urban planning professor at U.C. Berkeley. She said taking cars out of the picture leads to more foot traffic, which helps businesses.

“People can easily walk around in the area, so it’s comfortable and people feel safe, then it often has led to even more business for restaurants,” she said.

Other restaurants here seem to like it too. Rodney Johnson is the general manager of Fork and Alavita Restaurants.

”It doesn’t buy us a ton of space,” Johnson said. “It’ll buy probably a maximum of four tables. But again, something’s better than nothing and when the weather is nice in Boise, people love to sit on a patio.”

For Dave Krick, his three establishments could seat around 200 people on their patios before the shutdown.

”By extending our patios out, we gain in total between all the businesses, about eight tables,” he explained, “We’ll probably lose 25.”

So, even if it doesn’t make up for all the losses, Krick said the city experimenting with limiting car traffic is a hopeful sign.

“The pandemic is awful; COVID-19 is awful, but there are certainly lots of silver linings, lots of little projects that have come about because of this that we would have never experimented with or done. And this is certainly one of those,” Krick said.

Other venues want to do the same thing beyond 8th Street. And the Downtown Boise Association is working to make that happen.

Aubrie Scoffield runs the ‘9th Street Nook’ in downtown.

“We want to get everyone working again,” she said. “It’s really nice to have that outdoor patio option.”

Eager drinkers and thirsty protestors have kept the bar busy since reopening May 31. The bar has a half-dozen tables inside. Many are blocked off for distancing. There’s also a two-table patio area outside the front door. Its pre-COVID capacity was 49 people.

“Right now with social distancing we can fit 22 people in our bar and on our patio,” Scoffield said.

For restaurants and bars, capacity is critical to success. That’s one reason the Downtown Boise Association is pushing to expand more patios onto sidewalks and make up some of the lost seating.

“Eighth Street was our test run to figure everything out before we could push it out to everyone else,” Executive Director Jennifer Hensley said.

Unlike on Eighth street, the expanded plan the downtown association is working on doesn’t include closing streets, though there might be a few spots where a traffic lane is impacted. The most noticeable change would be pedestrian walkways in what is now part of the street.

“We will have to utilize parking spots as pedestrian detours, but that’s minimal,” Hensley said.

“It will be well-signed to tell people where to walk so they can get around these patios which will be enlarged.”

Although Boise owns the now-closed part of Eighth street, it doesn’t own other downtown roads. Jurisdiction belongs to the Ada County Highway District. ACHD and the city have clashed over parking, bike lanes, roundabouts and new subdivisions in recent years.

In an e-mail, ACHD spokeswoman Nicole DuBois said the agency has no plans to expand patios on sidewalks downtown, and, as of Wednesday afternoon, had not received a request to do so from the city. She wrote that ACHD would review any such proposal like any other closure request, which includes evaluating public safety, accessibility requirements and other factors.

Back at the Nook, Scoffield hopes the agency sees the opportunity, and the chance to help. She knows exactly the amount of difference it might make.

“With those extra 10-15 people,” Scoffield said,  “that can translate to an extra $200-$300 in sales on a shift.”

And for her, the move will create a more vibrant, inviting downtown.

This COVID pilot program will be assessed in the coming months and tweaked depending on its success. Better weather forecast later this week will no doubt give them a better picture on how well it’s working.

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