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07/18/20 Boise restaurants clamor for more outdoor seating

By Margaret Carmel,

More businesses in Boise could soon expand their dining out onto the sidewalks and or into the street to make room for physical distancing.

Boise City Council and the Ada County Highway District Commission held a joint meeting Tuesday to discuss their upcoming plans for granting more requests for restaurants to expand dining into the public right of way, with a goal to accommodate more customers while still following health guidelines during the pandemic.

Members of both boards agreed that supporting local businesses by allowing them ways to add more customers is important, and bureaucratic wheels should be greased to push approvals through quickly.

In mid-May, Boise announced it would be closing a two-block stretch of Eighth Street it has jurisdiction over during the evening hours to allow restaurants to expand their patios to the curb.

Since then, the city and ACHD have received upward of 90 applications from businesses elsewhere in Boise for expanded dining.

Boise’s Planning and Development Services Director Mark Lavin presented four options for outdoor dining in the public right of way, which would be implemented on a case-by-case basis.

The first option and easiest to set up would give restaurants a long, thin area along wider sidewalks to set up tables. This would keep sidewalks open and not impede car traffic, but would require neighboring businesses to cooperate with each other because the dining area would have to stretch farther down the sidewalk than just in front of the restaurants’ storefronts.

The second option is called a “parklet,” which would turn one or two on-street parking spaces into a dining area. This method is seen in downtown Nampa, where a wooden deck is being built over the parking spaces outside 2C Family Brewing Company and Mesa Tacos + Tequila. This option would keep sidewalks open for travel, but it would reduce parking availability. Parklets raises question related to Idaho’s open container laws.

A third option for expanding outdoor dining is using sidewalks for dining only and rerouting pedestrians.

Another possibility is closing lightly trafficked streets entirely and rerouting car traffic so pedestrians could walk in the street to get around the closed sidewalks.

Brad Harmon, manager of the Matador on Eighth Street, said once the city allowed the restaurant to extend its patio out to the curb, Matador could seat the same number of customers at their usual six tables outside as before the pandemic, which helped them keep up the same volume as before.

“We were able to only seat three tables out there (with distancing), but ever since the expansion we were able to seat all six and adhere to the six-foot rule,” he said.



ACHD Commissioner Jim Hansen said the city and the highway district should work to implement these changes as quickly as possible to get businesses the support they need to stay open.

He also said ACHD should look at more than just its “level of service” metrics when making a decision, which are heavily reliant on how quickly car commuters can get to their destinations during rush hour. Instead, the commission should look at the economic benefit to giving approval for dining in the right of way, even if it causes a bit of frustration for drivers.

“I would strongly encourage us to move these through quickly,“ he said. “The tendency is to become a little bureaucratic, and then the season goes by.”

ACHD Commissioner Rebecca Arnold and City Council Member TJ Thomson both raised some concerns about the expanded dining. Arnold said she wanted to ensure any designs for these types of changes to dining should be ADA compliant to ensure the city stays accessible for everyone, which Lavin said will be reviewed when individual plans are developed for each restaurant.

Thomson said he was concerned about safety of diners and pedestrians dining in the street using the parklet model or if streets and sidewalks are closed. Lavin and City Council President Elaine Clegg, who has developed these types of extended dining options through her work at Idaho Smart Growth, said they are walled off with barriers and there have been no issues with safety.

City Council Member Jimmy Hallyburton praised the idea, but he said the city should also make sure it is accommodating businesses outside of downtown, such as on Vista Avenue and Orchard Street.

“I want to make sure we’re also streamlining the process for businesses that may not be in the downtown area so we’re creating the same opportunities and pathways for them as well,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, ACHD officials said they will be drafting a resolution similar to Boise’s identifying the planning of the expanded dining as a priority and work with the city to get the process moving for the businesses to operate.

“I support everything that’s been said and look forward to making something happen to help all of the businesses,” ACHD President Mary May said.

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