COVID-19 (re)design: Restaurants are doing it in the road

As I sat with my boyfriend last Friday night in Monnik Beer Co.’s newly established “streatery,” I had to reflect on the important work Louisville restaurants, bars and retail stores are doing to keep themselves in business and us safe and connected during the coronavirus pandemic.

Our collectively flawed public response to COVID-19 has already killed some of Louisville’s most-loved restaurants and bars. But a few creative thinkers and entrepreneurs and even city officials have worked together to take dining into the streets to ensure diners are safe and their restaurants remain open.

On-street dining is new at Monnik — the first restaurant in the city allowed to move tables into parking spaces, but more will follow. The concept and permission emerged out of efforts by the city, restaurateurs and designers, but it also was encouraged by community groups as a way to keep restaurants going through the pandemic.

What they came up with was about creating virus-safe space for restaurants, or COVIDspace. But it is more than that.

The pandemic is creating an opportunity for COVIDUrbanism, radical but important changes to ensure the future of our cities, said Patrick Piuma, director of the Urban Design Studio with UofL, who worked with Monnik to think through the “streatery” concept.

“There are so many things that we are going to need to rethink, and the shape of our built environment will have an effect on and be changed by COVID in ways we probably won’t realize in some cases for a few decades,” he told me in an email.

“The need for more human space in the public realm is an obvious one a lot of places are grappling with, from the size of sidewalks for pedestrian social distancing to restaurant outdoor seating expanding into streets. It is a time of prototyping and testing in cities around the world. I am excited to see this because rapid problem solving is necessary and the cities that help facilitate creativity and flexibility will likely be the ones that flourish.”

Like the “streatery” at Monnik.

This photo illustration shows how Public House might use parking spaces to provide more outdoor seating. | Image by Megan Campbell Smith.

‘Our best week since March’

It was just our second time out since the restaurant and bar shutdowns and then re-openings. Even with the intent to go check out Monnik’s Schnitzelburg space with a critical eye on design, it was palpably delightful to be out and to casually enjoy the sounds and aromas of al fresco dining on a lovely summer evening.

The “streatery,” which is Monnik owner Brian Holton’s word for it, is an area about the size of four parking spaces, surrounded by alternating orange and white traffic barriers like you see along the highway. Rented from the city, they form a short wall around eight beer garden-style tables and benches. Topped with black, mesh awnings and strung with festival lighting, it was installed along Hickory Street, Monnik’s quiet side street.

“Last week was really nice, and the new streatery was busy,” Holton explained in an email. “It was our best week since March.”

Since shutdown in March, Monnik had seen dining room sales drop between 40% and 60%. After the “streatery,” Monnik sales have been almost normal, between 60% and 90% of pre-COVID-19 business.

The city has been working with bar and restaurant owners for a couple of months, seeking innovative seating solutions to expand dining capacity in a COVID 19-safe way. Monnik replied to the city’s first call for proposals on June 18.

He talked with Louisville Forward about ways we could add more seating outside. “At the time, I was tossing around the idea of shutting down a section of Hickory on a regular schedule but decided that would likely be a lot of work for little to no return.”

For you folks familiar with the neighborhood, you might recall Hickory Street as the site of the bandstand and street fair during the annual Schnitzelburg Walk, which won’t be held this year due to COVID-19.

Then, Piuma contacted Holton about the idea of street dining. Next, they talked with a city planner who helped get permits.

They got their permit 25 days later on July 13. They completed installation on July 27. Then, just nine days later on Aug. 5, Mayor Greg Fischer announced a pilot program to further facilitate expanded outdoor dining by covering some of the costs and fees for on-street dining.

On-street dining is the second round of relaxed rules and waived fees to encourage outdoor dining in Louisville. It builds on efforts begun May 12 that waived sidewalk-encroachment permit fees and expedited outdoor dining permits. Plus, now the city has coordinated processes among various departments to expedite roadway encroachment permits, tent permits and meter bagging, and to ease parking zoning restrictions.

It’s official: Parklets

Bardstown Road has been a target area for on-street dining for months. Back in May, Bardstown Road Improvement Group (B.I.G.) co-founder and then Metro Council-candidate Shawn Reilly proposed the installation of “parklets,” a kind of high-design, on-street dining installation, as part of his campaign platform. Reilly’s plan encouraged restaurants to install outdoor dining spaces built flush with the sidewalk for safe and accessible ingress. Since street parking is underutilized while restaurant capacity is curbed to fight pandemic, Reilly said, he felt we should “create beautiful park-like areas that would provide for safe social distancing, add seating capacity and enhance the walkability of sidewalks.”

The catch is that Bardstown Road is a state road and a high-traffic corridor. Changes to its traffic patterns are permitted solely by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Reading social media reactions to Reilly’s parklets proposal in May, it was clear the objections to outdoor dining along Bardstown Road centered around the fact that this is a heavily-traveled corridor. Although sometimes disobeyed, the parking lanes along restaurant row in The Highlands have been closed to commuters since March, effectively freeing two parking lanes for outdoor dining takeovers.

When we caught up after the mayor’s Aug. 5 announcement, Reilly told me, “I’m really excited. It’s pretty much exactly what we asked for.”

With the city’s new pilot program, coordinated permitting between city and state (hopefully) streamlines the permitting process. Between the May efforts by the city to relax sidewalk encroachments and expedite outdoor dining permits, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet had to agree to work with the city to determine when to permit roadway encroachment, to decide faster, and to decide whether or not to waive those permit fees (according to Louisville Forward spokesperson Caitlin Bowling, it did). The state still determines whether to grant those permits on a case-by-case basis.

The August announcement applies to bar and restaurant purveyors across the metro region and includes the waiver of minimum parking zoning laws so restaurants and bars could do parking lot takeovers, too. Further, the city budgeted $18,000 in leftover CycLOUvia funds to a pilot program that, for one month, covers meter bagging fees from PARC, tent permit and related fees from zoning and the cost of installing those orange and white traffic barriers from Public Works. If proprietors want, they can maintain their on-street dining installations if they cover the fees after the pilot month ends. Entering the pilot program is optional if one wants fees covered, but getting permits is required.

I asked Reilly what needs attention next, now that parklets are allowed in Louisville. He said he “would like to see some design guidelines” created, but ultimately that’s up to businesses to decide what to do with their on-street dining space and how much to invest in it. “We have to start somewhere, and if this is the beginning of some cool new urbanism, then that’s great.”

Molly Gunn and Jack Buelter enjoy Monnik Beer Co.’s ‘streatery,’ with tables spaced for socially distant eating and drinking.

Double Impact: More seats, more visibility

On Monday, Aug. 10, just before filing this report, I got to talk with Adam Watson, co-owner and managing member of Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse. Its Public House taproom on Bardstown Road applied over the weekend to be one of the first on that corridor to expand into the street. He was still waiting on word about whether his permits were granted when we spoke. It was also the day when Gov. Andy Beshear announced restaurants and bars could return to 50% indoor capacity, for the second time, following a two-week clampdown.

Watson’s plans for Public House include taking over two parking spaces directly in front of the taproom. It’s an area about 50 feet long that projects about 8 feet into the street. Most of the curb is a step up to the sidewalk, but there is a sloping area of sidewalk suitable for an accessible approach. Watson expects to place four four-top tables in the Public House “streatery” and to shade them with popup canopies brandishing the Against The Grain wordmark and logos. Currently, there are just two sidewalk four-tops at Public House, one of which I gave a rush hour test drive as we talked. The pilsner and the street-side vibe were both adequately chill. I felt a real ‘90s vibe to the casual, conversational way folks came up and offered mask-donned hellos.

Watson is eager to experiment and happy he doesn’t have to invest in that experiment. For a month, the “streatery” will cost them nothing. If it works, he’ll end up paying $25 a day to the city for orange and white barriers and for the meter bagging. If he decides the experiment isn’t worth it, Public Works will take the barriers away. All the furniture and canopies the business owns already.

We talked about what on-street dining means to Against the Grain and to the neighborhood at large.

“Our downtown location has the ideal outdoor space, honestly, but unfortunately no one is going downtown right now,” said Watson.

The Bardstown Road location is doing OK, he said, but not great. Because people are not working downtown or going there, AtG has temporarily closed that location, beer production has dropped 50%, and it has had to cut 80 of 100 employees. During COVID-19, even for a big brand like AtG, adding street tables really isn’t about becoming profitable, yet.

“Cutting off the largest piece of our retail operations has definitely put a hurt on us. The [on-street dining] model has really worked well in some neighborhoods, and one of the greatest features of our Public House location is it is a neighborhood spot. Downtown, we subsist largely on tourism.”

Watson said he hopes participating in the on-street dining program communicates to the community that theirs is a company committed to providing the things they provided before but in a newly-revised, safe way. He expects Public House to scratch the itch with a more of a “livable, neighborhood vibe, honestly a bit more European. Where you just go out and dine on streets and on sidewalks and in visibility of your neighbors, it helps bring a neighborhood together. I think being able to show off that we can do that during these very troubled times, when people feel less like a community than ever, is a good thing.”

Are we doing enough? (no)

Many cities have taken a more aggressive approach to expanding outdoor dining, including partially- or fully-closed streets to repurpose public space for pandemic-safe socialization. An Aug. 14 article on Eater (New York) claims that “9,500 restaurants have applied and been approved for expedited outdoor dining permits this summer” and that “76 streets and nine pedestrian plazas are now shut down for outdoor dining every weekend.” Bowling with Louisville Forward confirmed that zero streets have closed in Louisville for any form of outdoor dining. And Public Works said in an email that 40 encroachment permits have been allowed for outdoor dining in the public right-of-way (sidewalks and streets) since May 12. Bowling noted it would be impossible to know how many restaurants created outdoor seating on private property, which does not require a special permit.

Restaurants in San Francisco, Manhattan, the Bronx, Portland, Oregon and Seattle returned to a good clip of business in June because patrons could dine-in al fresco in the streets. The small town of Blaine, Minnesota allowed restaurants to take over paved plazas in city parks, by emergency order, on June 22. Menlo Park near Palo Alto, California, has been cost-sharing up to $45,000 per on-street dining build-out since June.

I asked Bowling with Louisville Forward if the city has considered cost-sharing in addition to the pilot program and learned it had not.

The initial response to coronavirus — shutting down social gatherings, including bars and restaurants, while adopting flatten-the-curve behaviors — was undeniably the right decision. But five months in, failing to reimagine what it means to socialize in COVIDspace is doing serious, irreparable harm.

In a recent town hall-style meeting hosted Aug. 7 by Councilperson-elect Jecorey Arthur, District 4 business owners commented at one point on the pandemic’s impact on their business. From The Mayan Cafe, Anne Shadle said COVID cut sales by 70%. Annie Petry from Decca said COVID shut down the business for three months and led to a 70% reduction in revenue since reopening. Doug Petry of Galaxie, which has an outdoor dining patio on Market Street, said that the pandemic meant a “significant reduction in revenue, adjustment of business operations, and reinventing new operational protocols.” Petry and partners’ other NuLu venture, Rye, closed permanently due to coronavirus hardships on July 25.

I called my bank’s Small Business Administration loan officer and asked her if my bank, a prominent bank in Kentucky, was involved in any funding requests for outdoor dining renovations. She wasn’t aware of any such applications.

I asked if there had been any talk with city officials about perhaps partnering with the bank to productize an outdoor dining funding offer, to streamline with the new expedited permitting procedures. She hadn’t heard of any such inquiries.

Further, she said she doubted that any business would want to go further into debt right now, and the bank wouldn’t productize an offering because really it’s up to businesses to know what they need. Wrong answer.

We’re looking at a decade-long recovery timeline. Merely and barely surviving for years on end is not something, I think, most Americans have an appetite for. Just as the city, restaurants and designers moved to create on-street dining, we should consider all reasonable plays to speed up recovery and to support food service businesses. It would mean a faster recovery through wages and occupational license fees (how local businesses pay income tax), and it could spare us a generation of boarded-up storefronts. In business, time is money, so I’m a little disappointed the city didn’t start with cost-sharing two months ago.

If there is anything good to come from the pandemic, it might be how it changes our relationship with urban design. Restaurants are part of something bigger, and their ability to survive COVID-19 depends not just on whether they can design a virus-safe space for social activity.

“I wonder what this will do to commercial corridors,” Piuma mused. “I think areas that have good walkable environments will do well eventually, though many retail, restaurant and bar establishments are going to have an extremely rough time of it and some will unfortunately not make it through to the other side. I would think more people working from home will mean those people who used to work in the central business district or other office parks will frequent more establishments closer to home for lunch, coffee, happy hour etc.

“All of this will be very disproportionately distributed though. A great number of workers won’t or don’t have the luxury of working from home. Severe shortfalls in public transit are going to have a major detrimental effect on the workers that rely on it to get to job centers across town.”

Which is to say we want to think about how we make COVID-19 safe spaces that make our whole city a place we want to live 10 and 20 years from now. Because that’s when we’ll be done paying off our losses from this tragedy.

Megan Campbell Smith is an architect, entrepreneur and founder of WorkThrive, a nonprofit digital innovation lab. WorkThrive offers a COVID-19-safe Wi-Fi garden every Wednesday, weather permitting, at 2009 West Broadway. She also runs the management consultancy Nights + Weekends, which provides LEO’s distribution.