City implementing ‘social zones’

Large public spaces to be available for socially distanced outdoor seating; private property permits also available.
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The closure of half a street is among four options available in the city’s new social zones on public property for bars, restaurants and retailers. City of Grand Rapids

If they haven’t already, Grand Rapids residents soon may see temporary outdoor dining and retail plazas on public property popping up around town, thanks to a resolution the city is implementing.

The Grand Rapids City Commission passed a resolution May 21 to establish “COVID-19 Recovery” as a special event from June 1 to Nov. 30, with the purpose of creating “social zones” in various neighborhoods to allow expanded seating capacity for patrons of restaurants and bars, as well as additional space for retailers to sell their wares.

Social zones were deemed necessary given the state’s new social distancing requirements for restaurants and retailers due to COVID-19.

Similar multi-business zones have been established in Florida, Ohio, Washington state, Oregon and the Czech Republic that have informed Grand Rapids’ planning over the past several weeks.

Since the resolution passed, the city has been partnering with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood business associations and other groups to iron out the details and approve applications.

While the city already had zoning in place that allows sidewalk seating (including parklets) in front of restaurants that have sidewalks — which can be applied for on the city’s website under Sidewalk Seating Permits — the concern was that with the demand for outdoor dining expected to increase significantly in the summer, more needed to be done.

The resolution passed by the city commission authorizes the issuance of individual permits for multi-business social zones as part of the COVID-19 Recovery event and provides a framework of rules and regulations for operations within social zones.

For instance, pedestrian and emergency vehicle access to adjacent properties will be maintained, sanitation and physical distancing practices will be required, and types of equipment that could impact surrounding neighborhoods (amplified sound, lighting, etc.) will be minimized. 

The consumption of alcohol within a designated social zone will be permitted, subject to the requirements of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC). Legislation that would govern alcohol consumption within outdoor social districts was being reviewed by the state House of Representatives at press time and was expected to pass, providing a framework within which cities could approve the extension of existing liquor licenses into the new social zones, with the likely caveat that beverages may need to be in sealed, to-go containers instead of being served tableside in open glasses.

The city provided a page with more information about social zones on its website, under Outdoor Space Activation and Social Zones, including four diagrams of what the social zones might look like.

Louis Canfield, development center manager for the city of Grand Rapids, said as social zones are established, an interactive map showing where the zones are located will be posted on the city’s website to help people find them.

The social zones overview page encourages people to “think of a social zone as a temporary repurposing of (public rights-of-way such as streets and sidewalks or city-owned property such as parking lots and parks) into an outdoor dining plaza or food court where individuals can dine on to-go fare — typically from nearby restaurants — in the company of other diners with appropriate physical distancing between parties.”

This means the public social zones aren’t meant to be outdoor seating areas where patrons will be served by wait staff as would be the case with outdoor seating on private property or adjacent sidewalks.

According to the social zone resolution, most applications will be submitted by coordinating organizations such as business associations, neighborhood associations, corridor authorities and chambers of commerce. City staff and project partners will work with the organizations to ensure engagement with neighboring businesses and property owners, and to reach agreement on plans to activate the public properties “with an acceptable level of impact upon the transportation network and other users.”

Canfield was planning to start meeting with corridor authorities the week of June 8 to begin the pre-application process, with the first zones expected to be up and running by the weekend of June 13. The zone locations had not been determined at press time.

Canfield said there are six corridor improvement authorities in the city and around 12 active neighborhood business associations. He estimates about a dozen social zones will be established in various neighborhoods.

Separate from the social zones track is an option that allows single businesses to apply for a temporary use permit to designate part of their private parking lots or adjacent sidewalks for outdoor seating based on temporarily reduced occupancy and parking needs, as long as the setup follows social distancing and other safety guidelines and regulations.

Canfield said he believes there will be “a lot more” applications from single businesses applying for outdoor seating on their lots or adjacent sidewalks than there will be applications for social zones.

The Grand Rapids Chamber on May 28 hosted a webinar called “Guide to Reopening Restaurants: An Overview of Social Zones, Safety & More,” which featured organizers, implementers and promoters of social zones, including:

  • Lou Canfield
  • Mark Miller, managing director of planning and design for DGRI
  • Josh Lunger, senior director of government affairs, Grand Rapids Chamber
  • Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association
  • Doug Small, CEO of Experience Grand Rapids

Miller, who has been working with Canfield and the city to flesh out the framework to deploy social zones, said the opportunity could be inclusive not only of restaurants and bars but also retailers — “sort of like a street fair” — and other businesses such as yoga or kickboxing studios, which also are under capacity limits as they reopen.

“(We’re) keeping an open mind about these and always thinking about the flexibility of them in terms of how they might be used or how they might morph as the business community starts to see the things that work or the things that may not work or maybe better ways to do things,” Miller said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to … really help (the business community) get restarted during the recovery process.”

Canfield indicated the city is planning to offer fee relief for those seeking permits under the “COVID-19 Recovery” special event designation.

He said for businesses that exist in areas where creating social zones is not feasible, multiple businesses with a shared parking lot may be able to work out a temporary use solution that allows outdoor dining adjacent to the lot or in the parking lot without obstructing use of the lot for other businesses.

Miller added he believes the Outdoor Space Activation and Social Zones guide provides a “broad” and “creative” toolbox of options for business owners to use one or two solutions in tandem to be able to expand their outdoor footprint.

Canfield said the city and DGRI have a limited number of tables, chairs and umbrellas they rent out for special events that could be used in social zones, but likely not enough to populate all of the zones.

“We would hope that some of the businesses would want to put what furniture they have in there and maybe add some as well,” he said. “It doesn’t all have to be by the same party.”

Applications for social zones and single-business temporary use permits are now live at bit.ly/outdoorspaceapps.

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