Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the details of the city’s proposed post-pandemic outdoor pilot program.

To serve Covid-weary customers amid indoor dining restrictions in the early days of the pandemic, the City of Boulder expanded outdoor dining for restaurants through Emergency Order 2020-16. Now, with case numbers dropping, restrictions lifting and the Boulder Business Recovery Program coming to an end, the city is considering what outdoor dining might look like after the order expires on April 30.

The city is working with the Downtown Boulder Partnership to explore the possibility of extending the use of extra outdoor dining space with a proposed post-pandemic outdoor dining pilot program. Under the proposal, the city would own the “parklet” infrastructure on the street, which would be leased by participating restaurants. Businesses currently do not pay for their use of the extended outdoor space.

Depending on the amount the city would subsidize the project, parklet rental could cost restaurants anywhere between $24 and $61 per square foot if they are located off the bricks, which would amount to $4,800–12,200 per year for a 10×20-foot patio, according to the city’s March 8 study session memorandum

The city surveyed 1,226 Pearl Street residents, workers and visitors and found that over 60% said outdoor dining provided a “significant improvement.” Representatives of 54 restaurants were also surveyed. Among restaurants already participating in the temporarily expanded outdoor dining program, 60% said they were “very interested” in the pilot program. Only 22% of those not participating in the current program were interested.

Continued closure of West Pearl could be possible as the city weighs options regarding outdoor dining in downtown Boulder — but according to the CEO of Downtown Boulder Partnership, who goes by the name Chip, it’s not part of the proposed pilot program being discussed between the city and the nonprofit.

“The street closure and the existing outdoor dining program have been part of the emergency orders that have been extended, which expire on April 30. So we, Downtown Boulder Partnership, have been working with city staff to develop a post-pandemic pilot program for outdoor dining that’s downtown-wide,” Chip said. “That would be kind of agnostic to whether this street is open or closed on the west end.”

But the question of whether or not West Pearl stays closed to cars is on the minds of many restaurant owners in the area. Proponents say an extension of the West Pearl closure would give businesses more opportunity to recover following years of hardships. But some restaurant owners say they rely on the parking and traffic that comes with operating on a city street. 

The sunset over the intersection at Pearl Street and 10th Street, where the road is closed to cars. March 8, 2022. Credit: Harry Fuller

‘West Pearl is ghostly at night.’

My Neighbor Felix opened just under a year ago and hasn’t seen what business is like with West Pearl open to cars. But Kasie Waxman, vice president of operations, supports keeping the expanded outdoor dining. “It gives people more of a chance to sit outside,” she said.  “So, it’s been great from a business perspective and from a guest perspective as well.”

But not all restaurant owners are happy about the prospect of West Pearl as a pedestrian-only area. Justin Hartman, CEO and founder of OZO Coffee, said the loss of parking outside his shop has led to a decrease in customers like the parents of young children, for whom the convenience of zipping in and out on car trips was a major draw. “I lost all of those people,” he said. “We’re still 30 plus percent down.”

During a March 1 city council meeting, Edwin Zoe, owner of Zoe Ma Ma and Chimera Ramen, and Jay Elowsky of Pasta Jays shared similar concerns. They didn’t dispute that restaurants have had a difficult time the past two years, but they said a continuation of the West Pearl street closure isn’t the solution. 

“West Pearl is a special and distinct business district, different from the pedestrian mall and East Pearl,” Zoe said. “We invest our time and money into our businesses in West Pearl because of the accessibility it provided, which Pearl Street Mall lacked. ”

Concerns about public access to West Pearl Street were central to their message. With a street closure and the perception that there isn’t parking, Zoe said fewer people have been going to eat on that section of Pearl. He said his restaurants have had to close early due to a lack of business. “West Pearl is ghostly at night,” he said.

Following their comments, some members of the city council seemed surprised by the pushback to the pilot program.

“The last time we talked about this particular issue, we were considering making it permanent,” Mayor Pro Tem Junie Joseph said in response to these comments. “ I think these few people coming forward and voicing their opinions might be something we might have to think about much more thoroughly.”

The City Council is expected to revisit this proposal before the expiration of the emergency order on April 30.

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that the continued closure of West Pearl was being considered as part of the City of Boulder’s post-pandemic outdoor dining pilot program. The potential for continued closure of the street is part of a broader conversation on outdoor dining in downtown Boulder, but is not part of the pilot program being explored by the city and the Downtown Boulder Partnership, according to the CEO of the nonprofit. The story has been updated with new reporting to more accurately reflect the parameters of the proposed pilot program.

I’m an intern with the Boulder Reporting Lab, currently finishing my journalism degree at CU Boulder. I’ve written stories on various topics and currently work as a sports photographer for CU’s student paper, The Bold. I’m interested in what’s going on around Boulder and love nature and sports photography.