A second summer of dining in streets on menu for Aspen restaurants

Elected officials supportive of continuing encroachment of sidewalks, parking spaces

Aspen City Council voiced its support on Tuesday to continue allowing restaurants and other business-related activities to encroach into the right-of-way through October as COVID-19 public health orders continue to dictate capacity and social distancing measures.

It will be the third iteration of the city’s COVID outdoor activation response to the business community since the pandemic bore down on the resort town last March.

Ron LeBlanc, the city’s special projects manager, told council during Tuesday’s work session that the municipal government is fielding calls from business owners interested in using sidewalks, parking spaces and other public spaces for outdoor dining, promotional activities and retail operations.

Council members unanimously agreed with staff’s recommendation to continue letting local businesses use the public space for private enterprise.

Some council members said the vitality of downtown last summer was evident, and they support more of it even after the pandemic has winded down.

“I think we had a better summer than anticipated for several reasons but I think one of which was these policies that we put in place,” said Councilwoman Ann Mullins. “I certainly support doing the same thing this coming summer, and also engaging the business owners to see if there’s additional things we can do to help them but I hope that we’ll be looking at this long term as a different way to use our streets, and not just a solution to COVID.”

Other council members agreed that the past several months have been a sort of living lab about what it looks and feels like to give people more of a pedestrian experience in the downtown core, and they should look further into a commercial core that is less vehicle-driven.

City Manager Sara Ott said staff is working on a pedestrian experience plan for the core and will present to council in the near future.

Elected officials also were supportive of staff bringing back a proposal for food trucks, trailers or carts, for existing restaurants, and possibly other local operators in the valley.

Retailers would likely be limited in how much and how often they can use public right-of-way space, since many abused that offering last year by not using it appropriately.

They, along with restaurants, will be expected to sign a contract with the city agreeing to specific rules, which were not fully hashed out last year as staff was in response mode.

“As we were going 100 miles an hour last summer and the rules kept changing minute by minute, we did not do a good job getting contracts signed by these restaurants as they activated,” said Mitch Osur, the city’s director of downtown services and parking. “This year, we would have a very specific contract … understanding they need 6-foot distancing on the sidewalk mandatory so it is safer for pedestrians as they walk around and then in addition managing the number of tables they could have out.”

Osur made those comments in response to Mayor Torre’s observation that many restaurants pushed the envelope last summer by providing more tables than public health orders allowed.

He noted that out of the 49 parking spaces taken last summer, 27 of them were used by restaurants and 19 by retailers.

There are 682 parking spaces in the downtown core and 311 in the Rio Grande parking garage.

He said industry standard is for towns to have 85% occupancy of parking spaces, and there was one day last summer that the city was over that occupancy goal.

“As we stood last summer there will be plenty of parking to be had, even if we continue to take a few more parking spaces,” Osur said.

The majority of council members applauded Osur and his team for the work they have done thus far and will await updated detailed information for the next season of outdoor activation.

“Thank you, Mitch, for all your hard work throughout this entire time period,” said Councilwoman Rachel Richards. “You’ve really been turning in some good results for us.”