Get Ready for More Outdoor Dining, East Lansing

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Staff from the City of East Lansing are looking into offering public outdoor seating to allow customers to enjoy take-out food and drink near restaurants, allowing for more of a communal sense of dining. Space around Valley Court Park might be used by customers of Crunchy's and other nearby restaurants.

East Lansing city staff are pitching an idea to get people back to dining and drinking downtown as soon as possible: block off parts of public streets to provide outdoor seating areas.

The idea is to provide places where customers can grab food and drinks including beer and wine  from local restaurants and then sit outside nearby at public picnic tables, creating something more like the communal feeling of going out to eat.

Following up on a discussion at last week’s Downtown Development Authority, East Lansing’s City Council will take up the issue at Tuesday’s meeting (May 19).

The concept is meant to constitute an immediate response to the public health emergency and its economic harms – but it could end up having a longer impact on the dining culture of East Lansing. Until the pandemic, the City has tended to charge businesses for outdoor seating on public property and to use a sometimes cumbersome process of review and approval.

At Thursday’s meeting of the DDA, City staff presented the initial idea. The City would likely lay out the food courts with picnic tables in two areas – one along Albert Ave., between MAC Ave. and the entrance of the new Center City parking ramp, and the other in or near Valley Court Park, behind Crunchy’s.

Picnic tables would be pulled from parks for this use. The tables would be spaced 12 feet apart and hand-washing facilities would be set up on site, similar to those planned for the farmers market.

Mayor Ruth Beier liked the idea expanding the concept to other parts of the city where parking lots might be used as outdoor seating areas, such as the lot in Brookfield Plaza at Grand River Ave. and Hagadorn Rd. That lot is privately owned, so this move would require the owner’s agreement.

The approach could also be deployed in the Bailey parking lot, behind The Peanut Barrel. Because most of that lot is leased by the City from a private landowner, that might also require special arrangements.

The use of Albert Ave. for outdoor dining would require maintaining a 12-foot clearance to allow for emergency vehicles, but would otherwise turn that part of the street into a pedestrian mall. The seating area could be extended up Grove St. as well.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Part of the area that might be repurposed for outdoor public dining.

City Manager George Lahanas told the DDA he expected the outdoor area to close before the bars do – possibly by 10 p.m.

Lahanas envisioned patrons getting a glass of wine or pint of beer with them to enjoy with their food. Many local restaurants have state liquor licenses that allow them to sell beer and wine to-go.

At Thursday’s meeting, Crunchy’s owner Mike Krueger noted that his license from the state only allows him to sell beer and wine for carryout, not hard liquor. This is a state regulatory limit.

A similar idea to close downtown streets has already been proposed in Traverse City, but fine points – including when it could be open and the rules on alcohol use – still have to be worked out. The concept will likely have to be formally approved by the East Lansing City Council.

Lahanas said he anticipated restaurants to be legally restricted on their seating capacity when they are allowed by the governor to reopen. The intention of this summertime intervention is that the public seating would not count toward any single restaurant’s indoor capacity restrictions.

Lahanas said he did not want people to bring alcoholic beverages from home to the outdoor seating, and City Attorney Tom Yeadon said the state may require the City to receive a special permit exempting the street area from open container laws.

“You can get a burger and beer at a table in the food court, but you couldn’t bring a case of beer from a package store or bring it from home and drink,” Lahanas explained at the DDA meeting.

In Traverse City, the expanded footprint also allowed retailers to have additional space for sidewalk sales. In the past, business owners there have fought closing down downtown streets for foot traffic, fearing the loss of automobile traffic and on-street parking, but the pandemic has changed attitudes. 

Lahanas made clear he wants something to be approved quickly so that it could be up-and-running soon.

Have an opinion? You can speak at tomorrow’s virtual Council meeting during public comment, or write to City Council at council@cityofeastlansing.com.

Disclosure: Crunchy’s and the Responsible Hospitality Council (an organization of downtown bars) contribute financially to ELi.

For this article, Alice Dreger contributed reporting on background history.

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