Iâ€™m revisiting this site after a long, long hiatus, not because Iâ€™m back in Indy or because I have an update on development and planning.Â These days, I barely make it back more than a few days each year.Â And this article will not feature Indy-based photos.Â 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 theyâ€™re currently pioneering.Â Specifically, letâ€™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 Iâ€™ve featured a â€œparkletâ€ that took an on-street, metered parking space and transformed it to overflow al fresco seating for a restaurant in Tacoma Park, Maryland.Â The Indianapolis solution is a parklet writ large.Â In early May, Mayor Hogsett announced that Phase Two of Marion Countyâ€™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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â It then applied the aforementioned standards for eateries, helping these road segments energize into de jure eatery districtsâ€”the Wholesale District as a neighborhood of restaurants.Â 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 cityâ€™s northernmost urban neighborhoods.
These street closures, an initiative that captured national attention, are continuing through the Fourth of July weekend.Â After that, traffic will flow back through.Â Outside of photo stills and brief news footage, I canâ€™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.Â 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 thatâ€™s where my photos and analysis come in, using the first place that comes to anyoneâ€™s mind whenever we think of Indianapolis: the summertime vacation town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.Â 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).Â Complete with a boardwalk, main street retail, and even a few pedestrian-only corridors, Rehobothâ€™s summertime vibrance betrays its comparatively small population.Â Typically it feels like a thriving oceanside town.Â Not surprisingly, it has faced considerably smaller crowds this summer, with people spooked by the prospect of community spread.Â But itâ€™s not desertedâ€”itâ€™s reasonably easy to socially distance at the beach if the crowds are half their normal sizeâ€”and restaurants there have adopted similar practices.Â Take this one as an example:
Itâ€™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.Â Egg is a breakfast-lunch-brunch eatery, in the eclectic style that has become extremely fashionable in recent years.Â The outdoor space is well shaded with umbrellas and attractively landscaped.
Itâ€™s also large enough to allow plenty of social distancing among the clusters of patrons.Â Butâ€”and this almost goes without sayingâ€”all this outdoor seating at Egg is little more than an expedient response to social distancing measures.Â 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 itâ€™s exemplifies serendipity, after the considerable financial hardship that restaurants across the country have faced from all these pandemic-induced privations.Â Under normal conditions seen here in Street View, Eggâ€™s outdoor seating is little more than a row of deuces under a canopied entry patio, probably accommodating no more than ten people.Â Indoor restaurant seating in Delawareâ€”currently in the same phase of reopening as most of Indianaâ€”is extremely limited, which makes sense, given COVID-19â€™s death toll in the First State is ranked generally on par with the Hoosier State at this point in time, though Delawareâ€™s per capita is the higher of the two.Â But the appropriation of the adjacent affiliated parking lotâ€”which typically accommodated no more than a dozen carsâ€”gives the locally owned restaurant the opportunity to seat closer to forty.Â 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 Eggâ€™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.Â Apparently in Rehoboth Beach, the land development ordinances only require pavements on the handicapped spaces for parking lots of this modest size.Â Iâ€™d argue that the low-cost gravel enhances the setting, making the area feel less like its prior function.Â 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 donâ€™t think Iâ€™m conveying anything particularly surprising or profound to typical readers of this blog.Â And Iâ€™d imagine a beachfront town still seems like a weird analogy for the most commercialized districts in Indianapolis.Â 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.Â The road restrictions in the Wholesale District, Mass Ave, and Broad Ripple are still slated to end after the upcoming holiday weekend.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â The city has no major parking garage and large surface lots near the beach are non-existent; the land is too valuable.Â Most remaining parkingâ€”especially the off-street stuffâ€”is private, on lots not much bigger than the one next to Egg the restaurant.Â With the outdoor seating absorbing all of its former off-street parking, and the nearby on-street parking filling up quickly, Eggâ€™s new arrangement requires people to be at least moderately willing to walk.
That â€œwillingness to walkâ€ is the crucible from which I hope the planning community in Indianapolis has taken a cue after these last few weeks.Â No, I donâ€™t think the interest in walking is at the same scale as a boardwalk-oriented beachfront community.Â But the busy weekends on Mass Ave preceding the May unrestâ€”coupled with the possible threat (muted though it seems in Indiana) of a COVID resurgenceâ€”still afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that an alluring enough pedestrian node can entice people so that theyâ€™re willing to park up to a half-mile away from their destination and schlep over there.Â And one of the best ways to make a pedestrian node more alluring is to allow for an even greater density of activityâ€”of potential random encounters that reinforce the gregariousness of good urbanism that doesnâ€™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 â€œthrongs of peopleâ€, given that weâ€™re hardly out of the coronavirus mine field.Â 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.Â Perhaps we should encourage a â€œradical rethinkingâ€ 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.Â These are solutions that urban advocates in Indianapolis have long promoted, but hereâ€™s a chance to collect visual evidence to make a real case for it.Â 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.Â Itâ€™s the best way to convince the â€œnormiesâ€ that parking lots are really just broad swaths of marginally upgraded vacant land.Â