What if Denver closed streets to cars and opened them up to outdoor dining?

In cities around the world, restaurants are taking to the streets. They’re transforming parking lots and plazas, spilling onto sidewalks and coming up with “parklets” for more patio space. After months of closed dine-in service, these gathering places are counting on fresh air and more room for social distancing to keep employees and customers safe and businesses alive through the summer months.

Denver could be next to adopt the charge. After eight weeks of running on takeout and delivery only, restaurants and their business improvement districts, as well as volunteer planners across the city, are advocating now for further loosened restrictions on alcohol permitting and temporarily closed-off streets and parking lots to serve diners again.

By Memorial Day, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he expects to announce instructions for restaurants that are looking at a late May or early June reopening. A variance given to Mesa County this month allows for restaurants there to reopen at 30% of their usual fire-code capacity, and in a press conference on Wednesday, Polis said that a greatly reduced capacity should be expected indoors as more restaurants start to open around the state, but “we also want to find ways that they can expand tables outdoors” he said, mentioning sidewalks and parking spaces as potential options.

“We know restaurants are eager to reopen in a way that protects the health of their patrons, and (they) see measures like expanded patio space as one way to do that,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office announced on Tuesday. “(We) have been taking and evaluating requests from various stakeholders on what measures, including expanded patio space, could be implemented to support restaurants … once they’re able to reopen.”

This week, the Downtown Denver Partnership shared plans of its “rapid activation of commercial streets,” which was also proposed to Hancock earlier this month. The group gave nine examples of core blocks in various Denver neighborhoods where vehicle through-traffic and car parking could be temporarily blocked, allowing for pedestrian walkways and al fresco dining areas as seen in Europe or elsewhere in the United States during festivals and events.

Proposed outdoor dining spaces in Denver

  • Glenarm Place, midblock between 15th and 16th Streets to midblock between 16th and 17th Streets
  • Larimer Square, between 14th and 15th Streets
  • Larimer Street, between 26th and 28th Avenues (RiNo)
  • Tennyson Street, between 38th and 41st Avenues (Berkeley)
  • 32nd Avenue, between Lowell and Julian (Highland Square)
  • Wazee Street at 35th Street (The “L”)
  • Pearl Street, between Arkansas and Florida (Platt Park)
  • South Gaylord Street, between Tennessee and Mississippi (Washington Park)
  • 2nd Avenue, between Clayton and Fillmore (Cherry Creek North)

“This concept is not new to Denver,” the DDP’s president and CEO Tami Door told The Denver Post. “We have done this many many times, as have great cities around the world. What is particularly intriguing about it now is it’s an amalgamation of wins.”

Those wins, according to Door, include allowing individuals to gather safely again and letting neighborhoods and many of their retail businesses return to life, all while monitoring the viability of these types of gathering spaces long-term.

“We know for the future that this isn’t going away anytime soon, so we really need to understand how our public spaces can create safe spaces,” Door said. In order to do that, she and the DDP have proposed a five-month pilot period from Memorial Day to Oct. 31 that would take advantage of Colorado’s sunshine while allowing restaurants to serve diners in more spaces outdoors.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

DENVER, CO – APRIL 04: Bicyclists and pedestrians bike and walk along a stretch of East 16th ave near Washington St. April 04, 2020. The city of Denver has temporarily closed off several streets to vehicle-thru traffic in a few different locations across town to promote better social distancing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to streets around Sloan’s Lake, Capitol Hill, and 16th ave. is closed to vehicle-try traffic from Lincoln Ave. to City Park. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

“We could do it in five minutes.”

“I can make this happen literally yesterday,” restaurateur Beth Gruitch said of the time she would need to open up her dining rooms outside. Gruitch co-owns two restaurants in Larimer Square (Rioja and Bistro Vendome) and two more at Union Station (Ultreia and Stoic & Genuine). She and her team closed down a fifth restaurant, Euclid Hall, permanently at the start of the shutdown.

She knows that closing off Larimer Square to cars will take longer to implement and face more opposition, “but at Union Station, in my opinion, it’s a ‘why not?’ ” she said. “Why wouldn’t we? Let us open up our patios, let us space our tables out, let us fill that space with energy and fun.”