‘Social zones’ to expand dining options as restaurants reopen

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Private and public parking lots offer options for expanded seating
(Pictured: 555 Monroe Ave lot, photo courtesy of Samantha Ruth Photography)

When restaurants are allowed to reopen on Monday, June 8, they will do so while adhering to limited capacity and other safety regulations for indoor seating. At the same time, patio season is on the minds of many, with the warm, long days of summer at our doorstep. Though developments at the state level and COVID conditions have required careful preparation while navigating many unknowns, the timing of reopening has city leaders and business owners alike looking to the grand outdoors for creative solutions.

That’s why stakeholders from the city, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce have joined forces in recent weeks to think outside the box — or a building’s four walls — about what reopening could look like.

Taking cues from other cities such as Tampa and Bellevue, Wash., the efforts sought to explore use of public and private space — such as metered parking spots/lots, parks, sidewalks, streets and promenades — to increase opportunities for safe and socially-distanced dining.

On Thursday, May 21, city officials passed a resolution — closely modeled after its Art Prize predecessor — that allows for the designation of a “social zone” (for public space) or temporary use (of private property) through special permits. The existence of Art Prize guidelines helped expedite the process leading up to resolution approval, positioning Grand Rapids as a city to emulate for others in the lower half of the state reopening at the same time, as well as other cities in the region and beyond needing a roadmap for non-permanent outdoor accommodations in the age of COVID.

“These permits were set up to allow businesses to react quickly, and then adjust as needed,” said Mark Miller, Managing Director of Planning and Design at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI). “The city has provided a pretty broad toolkit for people to get creative, with the ability to customize details to work for their needs. This is a sprint that has been going on for weeks and everyone involved is cognizant of the urgency of it.”

Applications opened Monday, June 1 for restaurant owners and operators to begin the process (zone information available here, as well as the Special Event Fast App link to apply, requiring citizen access login creation).

Close collaboration between neighborhood organizations and the city will ensure zones are effective, accounting for street traffic and flow, business access for services like takeout, and other considerations. “I believe that these social zones can and should be as unique as the neighborhoods they are in,” said Richard App, Retail Retention & Attraction Specialist for the City of Grand Rapids. “Social zones will mean different things to different people, but to me they help bolster community, camaraderie, and commerce. Our city needs all three and I believe the social zones that we will create will be a big asset in helping to strengthen these.”

This pivot in service setting and style is one that comes as many restaurants struggle to remain afloat: According to Justin Winslow, President and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, 20 restaurants are closing for good every single day in the state. “This initiative is giving restaurants a fighting shot: Outdoor dining is a big part of that as cash flow has diminished [due to COVID],” he said. “And Grand Rapids is ahead of the curve [in preparing for these changes].”

Sidewalks and metered parking offer options for expanded seating
(pictured: Wealthy Street, photo courtesy of Samantha Ruth photography)

While food sales within permitted areas can begin as soon as approved by the city, — from June 8 onward — alcohol sales are a bit more complicated. Legislation already being circulated in Lansing would allow for open containers — such as fresh cocktails or beer on tap — to be available for purchase within zoned areas. The earliest this is expected to pass through legislature is the end of June, despite bipartisan support.

Imagine walking down a familiar street, grabbing an appetizer, entree, and dessert — from each of your favorite spots within walking distance, respectively — then meeting up with a couple of friends to spread out and enjoy some al fresco dining that feels at once modern and adaptive, if not business as usual. Music is playing along the breeze, the sunset your backdrop.

After months of shelter in place, the prospect is exciting — to say the least. And though remaining vigilant to keep abreast of developments and do what’s best for patrons and citizens, all parties are working hard to make it an emerging reality.

Marissa Fellows is a food and culture writer for GRNow. A lover of oysters, negronis, and all things mid-century modern, she works as a writer, brand consultant, and experience designer. Founder, Goodfellows Creative & Dinner Club GR (@dinnerclubgr).
Connect: Twitter and IG @mcallief | LinkedIn
email: marissa.c.fellows@gmail.com

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