Pandemic Parking: Reclaiming the Streets for Embattled Restaurants, Through the Parklets of Al Fresco Dining

I’m revisiting this site after a long, long hiatus, not because I’m back in Indy or because I have an update on development and planning.  These days, I barely make it back more than a few days each year.  And this article will not feature Indy-based photos.  But, after all those disclaimers, let me make my case: I still diligently follow the goings-on in the Circle City, and I think a subtle discoveries like the one featured here can show precisely how cities like Indianapolis can further leverage the novel approaches that they’re currently pioneering.  Specifically, let’s explore the impacts of expanding al fresco dining during pandemic social distancing measures, by capitalizing on the need for dedicated outdoor eating space by compromising on a land use that Indianapolis (and most cities) have in abundance: on-street and off-street parking.

This is a familiar subject, both for Urban Indy and for my own blog, where I’ve featured a “parklet” that took an on-street, metered parking space and transformed it to overflow al fresco seating for a restaurant in Tacoma Park, Maryland.  The Indianapolis solution is a parklet writ large.  In early May, Mayor Hogsett announced that Phase Two of Marion County’s reopening would allow restaurants to relax their carryout-only restrictions to expand restaurant seating onto sidewalks and the street, as long as the seating configurations remain at 50% capacity.  This solution helped grant the long-struggling industry some much needed relief by giving them the quantity of seats and tables necessary to generate a profit, all while still promoting social distancing. And if the streets and sidewalks proved insufficient, restaurants were allowed to claim private property adjacent to the business, including parking lots.

The restrictions apply in limited geographies that the City selected to maximize the opportunity for restaurants to improve their functionality and capitalization rate through enhanced outdoor seating.  Three of the five geographies are in close proximity to one another: the south half of Monument Circle, two blocks of Georgia Street, and three of Illinois Street.  Taking advantage of the continued reduced commuting as many people continue to work from home, the City blocked traffic along these segments, diverting it to other streets (especially West Street and Delaware Street), all while allowing the flow of cross traffic at key intersections.  It then applied the aforementioned standards for eateries, helping these road segments energize into de jure eatery districts—the Wholesale District as a neighborhood of restaurants.  The other two geographies are non-contiguous (the Alaska and Hawaii if you will) but the five blocks of Massachusetts Avenue makes it the largest Eat Street, while three large blocks of Broad Ripple Avenue create a similar condition in one of the city’s northernmost urban neighborhoods.

These street closures, an initiative that captured national attention, are continuing through the Fourth of July weekend.  After that, traffic will flow back through.  Outside of photo stills and brief news footage, I can’t really easily pontificate on how this has looked for the streets affected, and I have no doubt that the civil unrest and riots of late May put a serious damper on things.  But some locals have reflected on the idea of extending the practice well into the future, perhaps through a permitting system that expedites the opportunity for certain weekend or Friday evening closures.

And that’s where my photos and analysis come in, using the first place that comes to anyone’s mind whenever we think of Indianapolis: the summertime vacation town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  Obviously!

This beachfront town of 1,500 swells to 30 or 40K each summer, particularly attracting visitors from the Washington DC region, the closest major metro (about a two-hour drive away).  Complete with a boardwalk, main street retail, and even a few pedestrian-only corridors, Rehoboth’s summertime vibrance betrays its comparatively small population.  Typically it feels like a thriving oceanside town.  Not surprisingly, it has faced considerably smaller crowds this summer, with people spooked by the prospect of community spread.  But it’s not deserted—it’s reasonably easy to socially distance at the beach if the crowds are half their normal size—and restaurants there have adopted similar practices.  Take this one as an example:

It’s a successful eatery on the west end of Rehoboth Avenue, the largest and busiest pedestrian oriented commercial corridor in the town, at a point approximately 15 minutes walk from the beach and the boardwalk.  Egg is a breakfast-lunch-brunch eatery, in the eclectic style that has become extremely fashionable in recent years.  The outdoor space is well shaded with umbrellas and attractively landscaped.

It’s also large enough to allow plenty of social distancing among the clusters of patrons.  But—and this almost goes without saying—all this outdoor seating at Egg is little more than an expedient response to social distancing measures.  How can we tell?

Under the shade at the edge of the gravel is a low-lying bumper.

This is normally a parking space, and the outdoor seating at Egg is merely their old parking lot.

I single out this restaurant because it’s exemplifies serendipity, after the considerable financial hardship that restaurants across the country have faced from all these pandemic-induced privations.  Under normal conditions seen here in Street View, Egg’s outdoor seating is little more than a row of deuces under a canopied entry patio, probably accommodating no more than ten people.  Indoor restaurant seating in Delaware—currently in the same phase of reopening as most of Indiana—is extremely limited, which makes sense, given COVID-19’s death toll in the First State is ranked generally on par with the Hoosier State at this point in time, though Delaware’s per capita is the higher of the two.  But the appropriation of the adjacent affiliated parking lot—which typically accommodated no more than a dozen cars—gives the locally owned restaurant the opportunity to seat closer to forty.  And the surroundings are so pleasant that it takes time for one to even notice that he or she is dining on a reclaimed parking lot.

Only after Egg’s operating hours does it become more clear.

The paved space on the left, currently the site where the host stands, reveals the telltale blue stripes of handicapped seating.  Apparently in Rehoboth Beach, the land development ordinances only require pavements on the handicapped spaces for parking lots of this modest size.  I’d argue that the low-cost gravel enhances the setting, making the area feel less like its prior function.  Potted plants supplement a rope-and-bollard arrangement to demarcate the space, while reinforcing the restrictions for carrying alcohol off the premises, as indicated in the small sign affixed to the flower pot.

This outdoor-only seating arrangement may give Egg the opportunity to serve as many patrons as it would through its smaller, more densely packed dining room.

I don’t think I’m conveying anything particularly surprising or profound to typical readers of this blog.  And I’d imagine a beachfront town still seems like a weird analogy for the most commercialized districts in Indianapolis.  But leadership in Indianapolis and other cities has already demonstrated an astute approach to transforming a crisis into an opportunity, creating a hyper-pedestrianized setting to kick off the summer with a festive atmosphere, right on the heels of a demoralizing spring.  The road restrictions in the Wholesale District, Mass Ave, and Broad Ripple are still slated to end after the upcoming holiday weekend.  But in creating these temporary districts and showing the public what a little pushback on overly generous parking arrangement can achieve, the City has cracked open the lid.  Is it possible we may find a time to rip the lid off entirely?

Rehoboth Beach, despite its differences, faces a throng of visitors during its most popular season, giving it the appearance of a parking shortage that is more cited than sighted.  Of course it gets busy on summer weekends, and the regulations for parking are unusual: the town has an inordinately high number of metered on-street spaces, which visitors can pay and recharge remotely every two to three hours using their phone apps.  Or, if they desire another approach, day trippers can go to the visitor center or the Rehoboth Beach Parking Department and buy a day pass for $20, allowing them to park on any remaining on-street spaces not covered by meters, which usually means a slightly farther walk to the beach but no need to recharge.  The city has no major parking garage and large surface lots near the beach are non-existent; the land is too valuable.  Most remaining parking—especially the off-street stuff—is private, on lots not much bigger than the one next to Egg the restaurant.  With the outdoor seating absorbing all of its former off-street parking, and the nearby on-street parking filling up quickly, Egg’s new arrangement requires people to be at least moderately willing to walk.

That “willingness to walk” is the crucible from which I hope the planning community in Indianapolis has taken a cue after these last few weeks.  No, I don’t think the interest in walking is at the same scale as a boardwalk-oriented beachfront community.  But the busy weekends on Mass Ave preceding the May unrest—coupled with the possible threat (muted though it seems in Indiana) of a COVID resurgence—still afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that an alluring enough pedestrian node can entice people so that they’re willing to park up to a half-mile away from their destination and schlep over there.  And one of the best ways to make a pedestrian node more alluring is to allow for an even greater density of activity—of potential random encounters that reinforce the gregariousness of good urbanism that doesn’t need a baseball game, parade, or convention to encourage throngs of people to congregate on or near the public rights of way.

I recognize that this could seem like an inopportune time to talk about “throngs of people”, given that we’re hardly out of the coronavirus mine field.  But the success of the street closures in Indianapolis offer evidence that should help the business community near districts like Mass Ave, long convinced of a dire parking shortage, that some of the micro-lots (often wedged shaped) are non-essential at attracting people to a sufficiently desirable district.  Perhaps we should encourage a “radical rethinking” of parking needs that better aligns with actual demand, accounting for commercial versus residential, peak hours of usage, and the possibility for sharing of lots among adjacent private entities.  These are solutions that urban advocates in Indianapolis have long promoted, but here’s a chance to collect visual evidence to make a real case for it.  I think we can conceive of many other opportunities to replicate what Egg in Rehoboth Beach has achieved: maybe not so much in the Wholesale District, but certainly the pocket lots around Mass Ave (or elsewhere down East 10th Street), and meters or parking passes are absolutely justifiable on the streets that intersect Broad Ripple Avenue.

Given that renewed COVID restrictions seem less likely in Indiana than elsewhere, I encourage readers of Urban Indy to visit one of these pedestrianized restaurant rows this final weekend of its enforcement, take photos, and make your own observations on how people prove their willingness to walk.  It’s the best way to convince the “normies” that parking lots are really just broad swaths of marginally upgraded vacant land. 

Comments 10

  • I have been in Broad Ripple Village a couple times since they decided to close off Broad Ripple Avenue to allow patrons to sit outside. The first couple times I went there, the chairs and tables were all set up, but no one was sitting outside even though the weather was quite good. When I went this week, they had removed almost all of the chairs and tables.

    This is one of those ideas that sounds good on paper, but in practice it is not working in Indianapolis. It seems like if it gets above 75 degrees, people want to be inside with the air conditioning. I don’t get it. I love sitting outside. The heat doesn’t bother me. Heck I could sit outside in 90 degree heat and be perfectly fine. Unfortunately I’m in the minority.

    • Thanks for the message Paul. I guess one thing that the City failed to consider was, for those places that typically have little (or no) outdoor seating, whether or not they could justify the investment in tables and chairs for such a short term, when the streets would inevitably revert to vehicular use by the middle of the summer. Not every small restaurant can afford that, let alone find place to store them after hours–and if they purchase the heavy permanent stuff that’s difficult to steal, they’ve made a terrible investment for a temporary amenity.

      Did these businesses think of shade structures? That would be another huge factor and a huge cost. Without them, I’m sure it’s not that pleasant on a July day.

      Then again, for the relatively few places in Broad Ripple that have small side parking lots, they could petition to create a permanent situation, sacrificing their parking for half the year to accommodate al fresco dining. Those are the sort of incremental solutions where an idea “that sounds good on paper” (definitely agree) could achieve at least some lasting impact.

    • I think that this may be more of a function of Broad Ripple Avenues horrid streetscape and the businesses actually located on the Avenue. After the cars were banned people realized that BR Ave isn’t really anymore pleasant – it is just an empty expanse of asphalt with no shade in sight. The outdoor dining that people love in Broad Ripple is ALL off the strip – Fire on the Monon, La Piedad, Flatwater, Brew Pub, Public Greens, Sangrita, Bazbeaux…. The only true dinner places that even exists on the strip are Union Jacks & Cholita.

      In my experience people are more than willing to dine out in a properly shaded spot up to around 90 degrees depending on humidity. And even then some people still brave the heat, it’s just not full.

      The moral of this story is that BR Ave needs a proper streetscape w/ shade trees. The best time to do it is 20 years ago and the second best time is now.

      • Thanks for your thoughts, Paul. I’d agree that the streetscape on Broad Ripple Avenue is sub-par. Much like the historic main street of Greenwood, the roadway design is such that it doesn’t allow a great deal of options: the street is intrinsically narrow, as are the sidewalks, preventing the array of improvements that would make it more inviting; about all we can expect is the rudimentary traffic calming afforded through on-street parking. I’m not sure there’d ever be room for much in the way of street trees or landscaping, given the narrowness of the sidewalks and their tendency to get crowded on the weekends. I’d agree with you that people are often willing to dine out amidst temperature extremes if some provisions are made–e.g., shade and maybe fans/misting in extreme heat, or heaters/fires in extreme cold. In Copenhagen, people drape comforter-style blankets on their shoulders and tolerate eating outside during the colder days…which are numerous in Denmark.

        My one caveat (and perhaps my memory is failing me): hasn’t BR Avenue always been this way? Was it ever more attractive? And hasn’t it always hosted the frathouse-style bars, while the nicer restaurants have been on the other side streets? There will probably always be a market for those bars that appeal to the 21-25 y.o. crowd, given the proximity of Butler U…but at least that is largely consigned to a few blocks on BR Avenue, while the restaurant and retail offerings in the rest of the neighborhood are more eclectic.

        • It has always been this way. When I first started hanging around BR Ave in the early 2000’s I think traffic was even 2 lanes each way. Broad Ripple enjoyed it’s time in the sun as one of the only urban neighborhoods in Indy. It had an art and music scene and eventually a bar scene. The bars aren’t going anywhere and there is no reason they should. What happened was other areas in Indy have been revitalized and offer a more attractive package of what BR used to have exclusive rights to. BR just needs to update and become a more pleasant place and probably more neighborhood centric vs party destination. In my opinion it’s all low hanging fruit at this point. BR has great bones and surrounding neighborhoods it just needs to be updated in a few important ways.

  • Pre-COVID my wife and I would dine downtown on the night of a Broadway series show. And we typically ate within walking distance of the theatre (i.e. somewhere between Delaware and College on Mass Ave) so that we could find one parking spot upon arrival and stay put. It just isn’t that hard to find spaces around Mass Ave. Sure we have to pay $5 or $10, but it’s date night.

    It was more complicated when the shows were at Clowes Hall, since that usually involved eating in Broad Ripple (or at Meridian or Binkley’s or Ambrosia). But there is more than one garage at the end of the strip and we’ve never had trouble getting parking. In fact, a couple of years ago we went to Brugge (now a COVID casualty) and (gasp) walked the three blocks from garage to restaurant “all the way at the other end of the strip,” about 1/3 mile and past probably at least 10-12 other dining establishments.

    And we’re suburbanites. 🙂

    • Hi Chris–that sounds about right. As I’ve indicated, for each article I include a keyword, and the one here was among the most cumbersome: “willingness to walk”. Chances are your willingness to walk outstrips the average Indy resident, but I also think these business owners downplay this willingness…perhaps out of a lack of confidence in the capacity of their own enterprise to attract visitors?

      I’ve heard that “absolutely essential” garage that got built on College Avenue is rarely more than 50% occupied. In fact, IIRC, the owner leased out the roof to Enterprise a few years ago. Not sure Enterprise is still there–most car rental companies are in dire straits after COVID–but that is a sure sign that the garage wasn’t getting the occupancy it needed and the owner/manager needed to find a new capitalization stream.

      Sorry to hear about Brugge. If it’s any consolation, one of the Belgian places around me here in DC had to completely change its menu; it went from Belgian to Italian. Apparently mussels are not all that amenable to carry-out…? That’s the impression I’m getting, since Brugge was never hurting for business. Hopefully they’ll re-open at some point. Very sad to hear about the Basque restaurant that closed; I was looking forward to trying it the next time I was in Indy.

      • I just rented from Enterprise last week at that location and the only cars on the third floor were Enterprise’s cars. The second floor had one (1!) car on the second floor plus one (1!) car parked on the ramp to the second floor. Seriously, two non-Enterprise cars in the whole structure. Granted, this was 9:30am on a Wednesday. I was on my bike. 🙂

        • Yeah, you might actually have to park a car on one of the top floors on a Friday or Saturday evening. But I’m sure it doesn’t have much daytime use unless and until folks are meeting for lunch again. It has never been so busy that we had to go to the garage behind Fresh Thyme.

        • Given the dire state of the car rental industry (Hertz filed Chapter 11), I can’t help but wonder how much longer Enterprise will remain a reliable cash cow for that garage. To this day, it has a difficult time justifying its reason for being. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful it at least has retail on the first floor, but it’s hardly the highest and best use of that prime corner in Broad Ripple.

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