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The future of many local restaurants hinges upon the success or failure of something as seemingly rudimentary as patio seating. In late May, the City and County of Denver announced a program that allows the expansion of outdoor restaurant seating into parking lots, sidewalks, streets, and lawns. The additional al fresco dining areas are intended to help restaurants offset the loss incurred from hosting fewer diners inside due to social distancing requirements. But more than a month after the program was announced, many Denver owners and operators are still waiting for the city’s go-ahead to expand outside. And after being shut down for months, every day restaurants can’t serve extra people outside is that much more of a financial hit.
“It’s not as easy and streamlined as the government made it out to be,” says Angela Neri, owner of Pony Up on Blake Street. On June 1, she applied for a 20-seat patio extension onto Pony Up’s sidewalk to increase capacity by one-third. “It’s been multiple steps, multiple applications, multiple drawings, and so much time—stuff we don’t have as owners right now.”
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“We started the process a month ago, and we’re still not approved,” says Tyler Gallup, director of operations for Il Posto, Vero, and Tammen’s Fish Market in RiNo. Il Posto’s existing patio capacity was halved under the new mandates, so Gallup applied for an expansion that would seat 20 more people—a critical amount under normal circumstances, but especially important now. “Making up that loss will be huge for us. I’m just waiting for an answer to say yes or no.”
The delay with Il Posto’s expansion application, as well as Neri’s with Pony Up, seems to be attributed to the Right of Way Services department of the city’s Department of Transportation and Infastructure, which reviews plans that impact streets, alleys, and sidewalks. Gallup says the department is backed up by a couple weeks, likely due to the barrage of expansion applications the city has received.
Just up the block from Il Posto, the process was a lot quicker for Denver Central Market. “From my point of view, if it’s private property, it’s very smooth and easy,” says Kate Kaufman, the market’s operations director. “I was pretty impressed; I’ve never had the city be as responsive as in this scenario.”
Kaufman asked for an expansion into the market’s adjacent, privately-owned alleyway and parking lot. Denver approved the request in about two weeks. “Which to me is blindingly fast,” Kaufman says. “When you’re looking at losing thousands and thousands of dollars each day, though, it’s not. For a restaurant that’s trying to survive, two weeks is an eternity.”
Two weeks appears to be on the quicker side compared to other applications. Advocacy group EatDenver conducted a survey of 53 independent restaurants in mid-June and found that of the 39 that had applied for expanded outdoor premises, only eight had received permits; 27 restaurants, or 69 percent of applicants, were waiting on approvals. The City of Denver, however, says it issued 141 permits as of June 23, which would mean that 62 percent of requestors who’ve submitted complete applications were granted permits.
One of the bigger requests came from Larimer Square, which got approval to close down the entire street to cars to turn the square into one massive dining room for restaurants like Rioja, TAG, and Osteria Marco.
“Our situation in Larimer Square was somewhat unique in that we were not only applying to temporarily close the street, our restaurant and bar tenants were simultaneously applying to expand their patios, which meant we needed to coordinate the submission of a number of applications at once,” says Jon Buerge, chief development officer of Larimer Square developer Urban Villages. “The City and County of Denver were really collaborative through this process. Everyone seemed to understand how important it was to move quickly to make this happen for the tenants. All things considered, we found the process pretty expeditious.”
Fiona Arnold, who expanded Room for Milly’s Platte Street patio, agrees that city employees worked overtime to make the expansions happen, but says that the process was still time-consuming. “The process wasn’t super streamlined, and we had to send documents in multiple times and every department wanted something slightly different. But all the staff at the city and at the state liquor enforcement division were really responsive and worked hard, including on weekends, to get it done quickly.”
Besides losing potential revenue every day that expanded patios aren’t open, there’s another reason time is of the essence for restaurants applying for the additional seating: The expansion program expires September 7, and restaurants will have one week from then to clear out their new seating areas. “That’s going to be our saving grace,” Arnold says of the patio expansion. “It changed everything when we were able to open (the patio).”
For those still waiting on approval, they’re hoping that additional outdoor seats will help them stay afloat. “I think we’ll end up with more business,” Gallup says of Il Posto’s pending patio. “It will be worth the headache and heartache.”