A summer of European-style al fresco dining in downtown East Lansing appears to nearing a go, as a consensus of the East Lansing City Council emerged in discussions Tuesday at the Council’s virtual meeting.
Portions of public streets and surface parking areas will likely soon be set up with picnic tables where people can enjoy food and drink – including beer and wine – purchased from nearby restaurants at well-spaced tables. Nearby public parking would be free, at least at first.
City Manager George Lahanas said he would like to have at least Albert Ave. converted to a dining court with picnic tables by the first of June.
“The purpose of this is to support the restaurants. It’s also to get it set up as quickly as possible,” Lahanas said.
“We really need to do this and support our downtown businesses,” agreed Council Member Mark Meadows. “I think we should move forward as quickly as possible.”
In East Lansing, alcohol consumption has already occurred in a limited way with tables set up on public sidewalks as well as during special events, but the City may need to get clear approval from the state of Michigan to allow public consumption on tables set out in the street on an ongoing basis because of open-container laws. Some local laws will also have to be amended.
Lahanas supported the idea of restaurant patrons enjoying a beer while eating a hamburger purchased at a downtown restaurant, but at least three members of the Council wanted to go further, and not require people to buy food in order to enjoy a purchased drink in the public space.
“We’re limiting ourselves when we have a draconian view of alcohol consumption,” said Council Member Jessy Gregg.
“I don’t want to police whether people are buying food,” seconded Beier. “I don’t want El Azteco to tell them they have to buy food.” She referred back to the days of the 50-50 rule and said she had no interest in going back to that.
Beier also didn’t want to police whether people bought their drinks from a restaurant or a package store. But Lahanas suggested limiting people to drinking beverages purchased at restaurants, not 7-Eleven or CVS, and potentially even requiring people to show receipts.
“We want to avoid fifty people showing up with cases of beer,” Lahanas said, who also suggested having two-hour time limits at the downtown seating.
Gregg noted that earlier legislative efforts to restrict alcohol in East Lansing were undertaken in response to student drinking. But support for public drinking seems easier to assemble given the current absence of tens of thousands of college students or any events that cause rowdy crowds.
The outdoor dining program is proposed to end on Aug. 15, before Michigan State University may reopen for fall classes. The outdoor dining areas are also proposed to close at 10 o’clock each night, after opening at 11 in the morning.
Downtown parking in garages and lots will be free at least through June, and perhaps through July and beyond, to encourage people to dine downtown and patronize downtown businesses as they reopen.
Lahanas lamented lost revenue from parking receipts, but Beier told him it’s better to reinstate hourly parking fees later rather than sooner.
“We’ve thrown up our hands anyway” about the revenue problems, Beier said. “Let’s throw them up a little higher” to support businesses.
Gregg, who operates a boutique fabric shop on Grove Street, said customers continue to complain about the loss of street-level parking even with a now-free garage across the street.
Before the construction of the Center City District project, a public-private deal that included construction of the Target store and Newman Lofts, a large public surface lot – Lot 1 – occupied the center of downtown, and many store owners, including the owners of now-closed Mackerel Sky, have said their customers just don’t want to bother with a garage.
Beier said that the summer dining experience would help people get more familiarized with and accepting of parking in garages, which she supports as a more sustainable development option than parking in surface lots. That acceptance is easier if it’s free.
“I want to err on the side of keeping parking free longer,” Beier told Lahanas.
If executed as designed, an outdoor dining area on Albert Avenue would stretch from just east of the new Albert Avenue Garage to the alley next to Pinball Pete’s arcade. Sixteen or so tables would be set up at least 12 feet apart for social distancing. The city would also provide hand-washing stations.
Additional dining areas would be set up in the Bailey Street parking lot behind The Peanut Barrel and a closed-off section of Valley Court Drive between the park and the back of Crunchy’s tavern.
Beier had earlier supported outdoor dining areas in other parts of town, including Brookfield Plaza, but that is not a publicly-owned lot.
The concept of using outdoor public right-of-way to boost restaurant capacity had already been proposed in Cincinnati and Traverse City, two cities further along in the opening process after shutting down for the coronavirus pandemic. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday that northern Michigan, including Traverse City and the Upper Peninsula, could reopen bars and restaurants at reduced capacity on Friday, in time for Memorial Day weekend – but they must remain closed in the rest of the state.
Last week, East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority enthusiastically embraced the concept of picnic tables in public spaces for take-out food, beer, and wine.
“I think it’s great for the city,” said Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens. “It might be something that we do in non-Covid times, it’s so popular.”
Next, City Attorney Tom Yeadon is expected to finish drafting the local legislative changes needed to allow people to sit, eat, and drink alcohol in the designated public spaces. According to the City Charter, Council will then need to formally “introduce” the new ordinance at a public meeting and set a date for a public hearing.
Immediately after the public hearing, Council can approve new code language to allow for the concept. As long as the state presents no barriers and the weather cooperates, the culture of drinking and dining in East Lansing will change for at least a few months.