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Council opens public right-of-way for safe business with amended special events pilot

Friday, June 5, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

City Council approved a pilot program Thursday that will allow restaurants, bars and shops to use private and public parking spaces, sidewalks and streets to serve customers at a safe distance.

The Shop the Block! pilot builds upon the city’s special events permitting process, cutting the application decision period to no more than 10 business days and allowing businesses to use sidewalks and on-street parking for up to 30 days, with options for renewal.

“Open-air dining and shopping should have an immediate positive benefit for our small businesses by attracting more business activity under safer conditions,” Council Member Leslie Pool said in a post explaining the initiative. “It will also build on local and national momentum toward more pedestrian-friendly conditions on our public right-of-way, dovetailing with the public benefits our city is already seeing from (Council Member Paige) Ellis’ Healthy Streets initiative.”

The six-month pilot will open applications to bars, restaurants and shops on June 15, potentially offering the program to other business types if interest grows as the program develops. The pilot will run until December, when City Council will consider it for an extension.

On Tuesday, Pool explained she had looked into using CARES Act funds to waive permit fees, but was told the fees were ineligible for replacement through the federal relief package. However, Louisa Brinsmade, Pool’s chief of staff, told the Austin Monitor that innovative solutions are in the works to make sure the fees “stay very low.”

Brinsmade said the Economic Development Department is also exploring a CARES Act grant funding program that businesses could apply for to help cover fees related to the pilot, including permit fees.

David Waddell, executive director of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, said the ability to create temporary parklets – public or private seating areas installed over on-street parking spaces – would help restaurants follow social distancing protocols and restore confidence in customers who are wary of eating indoors. The program will also help businesses expand to 75 percent occupancy levels on June 12, per Gov. Greg Abbott’s Open Texas plan.

“Businesses, specifically restaurants, have been devastated by the pandemic and we estimate about 30 to 35 percent of all restaurants will close down permanently because of the pandemic,” Waddell said. “This is a crucial time for our industry (and) allowing parklets would be an excellent adjustment for businesses and restaurants until our lives and our businesses come back to the new normal, whatever that is.”

Permits allowing business services in private parking lots or public sidewalks and parking spaces are eligible for renewal after 30 days. Bigger Shop the Block! events featuring street closures will not last longer than 48 hours and are not eligible for renewal. All permits will require an Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility compliance plan.

Council agreed to offer the city’s support for bars and restaurants wishing to expand alcohol sales into parking lots or into the public right-of-way. On Tuesday, Patricia Link, assistant city attorney, said the city can allow outdoor alcohol sales for special events, but the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission ultimately decides what is permitted under each alcohol license.

“Maybe there’s something that we can work with the state on and say, we’ve loosened some of our restrictions on allowing them to use parking lots and sidewalks; can you join this effort and waive whatever restrictions the TABC places on their ability to use that space?” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza suggested.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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