Bloomington city council paves way for middle-of-the-road approach to outdoor dining through year’s end

This past weekend could have marked the final chance for restaurant patrons to enjoy a meal straddling the double-yellow roadway markings on Kirkwood Avenue. It’s been an option since mid-June, and was set to expire on Sept. 30.

But Bloomington’s city council acted on Wednesday to extend through the end of the year the authorization for the periodic closing of sections of Kirkwood Avenue to automobile traffic. The same action allowed for expanded merchandizing and seating in the public right of way.

The resolution, approved unanimously by the city council on Wednesday, also extended the easing of sign regulations for downtown businesses, and the simplification of procedures for obtaining a sign permit.

The council’s initial action in June came at the request of the city’s economic and sustainable development department, as way to help restaurants recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the pandemic continues. The same logic applied to the extension.

Expanded outdoor seating allows restaurants to draw business from patrons who would not choose to eat at a restaurant at all, if it meant dining indoors.

A “parklet” program, which sets up barricades around street parking spaces for expanded outdoor restaurant meeting, without closing down the whole street, did not need additional city council action on Wednesday to continue.

Wednesday’s resolution was not controversial among councilmembers. Director of economic and sustainable development Alex Crowley and special projects manager Kaisa Goodman told the council that the response to the street closures and parklets had not been universally in favor, but was “overwhelmingly positive.”

Some concerns they’d heard included the lack of access to parking spaces on Kirkwood, during the weekend street closures. Some businesses are less enthusiastic than others about the outdoor space, they said. But restaurants that are making use of the outdoor space have seen thousands of dollars in additional income.

Crowley said there had been some uReports logged with complaints about the closures.

The city’s online system shows that one of the complaints asked, “How much are the restaurants paying to use the public parking/roadways?” Businesses aren’t paying for the street closures. Another complaint stated, “So I understand that this is good for students but it’s bad for residents. And I think over all bad for business.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith was keen to know if there’d been any complaints from business owners who felt their business had been hurt by the street closures.

Crowley said that when the ordinance was initially discussed in June, his department relied on the Kirkwood Community Association as an interface. The idea was to avoid getting drawn into the middle of “intra-block challenges,” Crowley said.

Responding to Piedmont-Smith’s specific question, Crowley said, “I have personally not been contacted, that I’m aware of, by any restaurant that has expressed any direct kind of concern about it.”

The weekend starting Sept. 25 was ideal for outdoor dining. The high temperature on Friday was 80 F, followed by 76 F on Saturday and 80 on Sunday. Through sunset on Sunday, no rain fell over the weekend.

Next weekend, the first weekend of October could be a little brisker. The National Weather Service forecast for Bloominington calls for highs around 60 degrees.

For the next thirty days, the NWS is predicting a decent chance that temperatures across Indiana will be higher than normal and rainfall will be below normal.