Public right-of-way issues: Use of Kirkwood for dining through Oct. 31 mulled by Bloomington city council, motorcoaches get some parking commission talk

Bloomington restaurants might be able to continue using a few blocks of Kirkwood Avenue as restaurant seating, through Oct. 31.

That’s the effect of a resolution to be considered by Bloomington’s city council at its regular Wednesday meeting this week (June 2).

In mid-December last year, the council passed a resolution  extending the measures through Aug. 6.

The resolution on the council’s Wednesday agenda would also ask the city engineer to issue another temporary order to allow for the continued use of pick-up-drop off (PUDO) zones and “parklets” through Oct. 31. Parklets are the metered parking spots blocked off with orange water-filled traffic barriers to allow for additional outdoor restaurant seating.

The PUDO zones, as well as restaurant seating in the street and in parklets, were conceived as a way to help the business community recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the provisions of the ordinance the council would be extending is the suspension of fees that would ordinarily be charged for seating and merchandising encroachments within the right-of-way.

No fees are currently being charged to business owners for parklets, PUDO zones, or Kirkwood seating, director of economic and sustainability Alex Crowley confirmed to The Square Beacon in an email last week.

Crowley’s confirmation that no fees are being charged came with a caveat: “For now.”

How the private use of the public right-of-way is regulated is fundamental to the policy question to be considered by the city council this week.

It’s the same kind of issue that appeared on the city’s parking commission agenda last Thursday—purely as a discussion item—in connection with motorcoach street parking for downtown hotels.

Parking commission: Motorcoach Parking

Motorcoaches can apply for special event parking and pay a fee for all the metered spaces they take up.  At the parking commission’s Thursday meeting, parking services director Michelle Wahl described the fee as $20 per meter per day.

It’s laid out as a provision of the city’s parking laws.

The specific location that’s caused some recent concern is the stretch of Kirkwood west of Walnut, the block where Irish Lion and Crazy Horse are located, opposite the Hyatt Place.

A recent Big 10 track and field championship, hosted by Indiana University, brought several teams who arrived in motorcoaches that parked on downtown streets in prodigious numbers.

But the motorcoach parking question dates at least as far back as 2018, when it was raised as a possible item for future discussion at a meeting of the Bloomington-Monroe County metropolitan planning organization (MPO) policy committee.

Weighing in during the parking commission’s discussion on Thursday were representatives from several downtown hotels: Nick Siracusa, general manager at the Hyatt Place; Lindsay Poynter general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn; Joseph Crider, with Hilton Garden Inn; and Corey Parton, general manager with the Graduate Bloomington.

Representatives from the hotels stressed that doing business with sports teams is contingent on signing contracts that ensure close access from the motorcoach to the hotel. As The Graduate’s Corey Parton put it, “We have an obligation to provide a safe, well lit nearby location for not even just the players, but the drivers specifically.”

Mike McAfee, executive director of Visit Bloomington, highlighted for parking commissioners the economic impact of hotel guests: “Every passenger on one of those [motorcoaches] spends $160 per person, per day, every day they’re in Monroe County.” McAfee added, “It creates a ton of jobs and obviously a ton of revenue for our community.”

Buses of college athletes don’t necessarily mean much increased business for restaurants and bars like Crazy Horse. Ron Stanhouse, owner of Crazy Horse, told the parking commission, “We’ve been operating at that location for 35 years. … So we definitely understand the revitalization process, the importance of the hotels in the downtown vibrancy.”

Stanhouse added, “I’m trying to remember what I saw—maybe five or six bus reservations on Kirkwood. And two more reservations on Fourth Street around one hotel.”

Stanhouse’s conclusion about the city’s current approach to motorcoach parking: “We lack balance.”

Parking commission chair Eoban Binder wrapped up the discussion by saying he thinks a parking commission work session would be suitable for more discussion. Information that Binder would like to see collected before such a work session includes the frequency of motorcoach parking. “We’ll continue to discuss this,” Binder said.

Use of Kirkwood: City council work session

At a work session held on May 21, Bloomington city councilmembers got a first look at the resolution they’ll be asked to approve this Wednesday (June 2).

The timing of Wednesday’s resolution—given that the council’s current resolution allowing for Kirkwood dining goes through Aug. 6—is addressed in the meeting information packet.

According to the staff memo, the council’s resolution last year had legally extended the Kirkwood conversion program through Aug. 6, 2021. But the staff presentation had indicated an end date of June 30, based on “the many unknowns about the pandemic.”

At the work session, the end date was given a bit of scrutiny by city council president Jims Sims. He said he didn’t want his question to be perceived as either in opposition or in support of passing the resolution—he was “just doing council work.”

Sims continued, “The whole point of the closure was to help our downtown merchants, particularly restaurants, through the pandemic.” Sims added that eventually, “We’ll be able to go back to normal seating capacities.” Based on that, Sims wanted to know if there’s still the need to keep Kirkwood closed for dining through Oct. 31.

Sims asked, “Is there a possibility that there might be a step, throughout the process—maybe review again in July?”

Responding to Sims was Bloomington’s assistant director for small business development, Jane Kupersmith. She talked about the challenge the service sector has right now in hiring staff. “One of the ways that businesses are able to ensure staffing is to make sure that their staff feel comfortable in their work environment,” Kupersmith said.

She added, “The continuation of outdoor dining and allowing outdoor interactions, kind of pushing the interactions outdoors, continues to increase that staff comfort and confidence.

Special projects manager for economic and sustainable development Kaisa Goodman said that one of the goals of the mid-street dining program is to allow businesses to make up for losses they experienced during the pandemic.

The closing of the street through the week instead of on an ad hoc basis, saves public works labor and adds to predictability for potential patrons.

About the extension of mid-street dining through Oct. 31, Goodman said, “That really comes from wanting both the businesses and the patrons to have predictability.”

The Square Beacon asked Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton about the Kirkwood conversion during last Friday’s weekly press conference of local leaders on pandemic response. Does the current closure, in the waning days of the pandemic, demonstrate the viability of a more-or-less permanent seasonal closure of Kirkwood in future years?

Hamilton’s response did not commit to anything. He said, “[The pandemic] has taught us that outdoor spaces can be not only fun, but, of course, safer. So I do think the community is voting with our feet. And we will continue to listen for those votes.”

Hamilton added, ”But let’s let it play out a step at a time. And I have no announcement to make about that today!”

One of the concerns that was raised last year when Kirkwood Avenue was closed for dining was the diminished accessibility to the businesses along the closed blocks of Kirkwood, including restaurants, for those who depend on cars to get around.

Asked on Friday if any accessible parking spots have been added to the north-south streets at the intersection of Kirkwood Avenue, Hamilton could not confirm any additional accessible parking spots.

Hamilton said, “What I can say is, I know we’re working very closely with the commission on accessibility as well as the establishments there on Kirkwood, to make sure we facilitate the use by everyone, disabled or able-bodied, to those venues.”