Aspen electeds to consider outdoor commerce in parking spaces

If Aspen’s elected officials agree, downtown streets will be modified next week so parking spaces are used for restaurant seating and retail spaces to accommodate businesses that are forced to operate under social distancing public health orders due to COVID-19.

A team of city staff is recommending to City Council that it agree to modifying several streets in the downtown core so that between three and five tables take up a parking space, which would be protected by jersey barriers and other delineating features to prevent vehicle interaction.

“I think we can do something big without doing too much,” said Pete Rice, manager of the city’s engineering division who is leading the plan and will present to council on Monday.

The streets that would be modified would be changed to one-way traffic. The program, which could be for the summer and early fall, is designed around increasing economic activity for local businesses that have taken a severe hit due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Rice and his team relied heavily on the overwhelming public feedback they received on the city’s platform.

Almost 750 people filled out the survey, and more than 93% support outdoor commerce.

Rice said it’s not known yet how many of the downtown core’s 682 spaces would be needed. That will be determined based on how many businesses fill out an application for a special right of way permit.

Full street closures are another option but Rice said he does not recommend that for a number of reasons, including that business groups and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association do not support it.

Also, because the requests so far from businesses to take to the streets are so spread out throughout town, street closures create inequity between groups.

Closing the streets also does not give balance to parking, and restaurants would like areas to continue with take-out orders, which they had been relying on since March when public health orders halted indoor dining.

Restaurants opened this week but are limited to tables 8 feet apart and 50% capacity.

Rice said if council wants to close the streets, his team is prepared to do that.

“I am trying to balance the needs a bit between the public and the business groups,” he said, adding that 15 restaurateurs have indicated they want outdoor space.

Whatever council decides, Rice and his team are ready to execute the first phase of outdoor commerce.

“We can create space for restaurants and businesses starting on Tuesday,” Rice said. “My thoughts are let’s just give them space and then do a more thoughtful approach.”

Immediate street modification for one block is estimated to be $24,000.

If council supports a more formal and perhaps long-term outdoor seating plan that includes decks with railings, or what are known as “parklettes” that are placed in the right of way, the team will begin ordering the necessary materials.

Rice estimates that each deck costs around $15,000. Estimating that four would be purchased, along with planters, striping and other roadway improvements, the total cost would be $125,000.

It would take about a month to get them ordered and assembled.

“Staff will remain flexible and adaptable for the first few weeks as adjustments may be needed to suit the needs of the individual business,” Rice wrote in a memo to council. “Safety will be a top priority as staff will continue to work with the businesses on measures that can be implemented within the activation areas.”

Rice said he plans on working on a case-by-case basis with local businesses that apply for a permit, which will be done by them turning in a form to the City Clerk’s office.

“I think this is a great opportunity to see what works,” Rice said. “My gut feeling is it will help.”