Outdoor Dining in East Lansing Next Week? At Least in Some Places.

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Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi

The plan is to create a food court on Albert Ave. where people can enjoy take-out food and beverages.

As Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s latest orders allow for restaurants and bars to open to 50 percent of normal capacity starting on Monday, June 8, the City of East Lansing is preparing to provide for more outdoor seating for dining and drinking downtown.

The restaurant and bar industry in Michigan is taking heavy hits from the stay-at-home orders. The Detroit News reports that the parent company of HopCat declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday, in order to restructure debts. The company still plans to reopen its restaurants, but whether they survive will depend on what comes next.

Besides hoping to draw people back downtown with more outdoor take-out dining options, the goal of East Lansing staff is to help restaurants make ends meet. The governor’s orders – significantly limiting seating in response to the coronavirus – dampen down possible total revenues for restaurants and bars even while those establishments still have to pay full rent, utilities, insurance and so on.

But opening up more sidewalk dining and drinking spaces isn’t simple around here, as East Lansing has maintained a heavy regulatory system for any establishment serving alcohol.

Here’s the plan as far as we have been able to ascertain it:

On the morning of Monday, June 8:

Per the governor’s executive order 2020-110, East Lansing restaurants can reopen anytime Monday just after midnight to offer 50 percent of normal seating with at least six feet separation between parties.

Restaurants can also keep offering take-out, and bars and restaurants with the right kind of liquor license from the state can keep selling packaged (bottled or canned) beer and wine to-go.

On the evening of Tuesday, June 9:

East Lansing’s City Council will hold a public hearing on Ordinance 1486, which according to Planning Director Tom Fehrenbach “will make the ‘Open Air Dining’ food court idea possible,” if passed.

Raymond Holt for ELi

East Lansing’s Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach speaking to Council on Feb. 18, 2020, when meetings still happened in person.

This will basically allow the City to set up marked areas with picnic tables available for people grabbing take-out food and beverages, including bottled beer and wine, from local restaurants.

Why didn’t City Council get this done in advance of the state’s re-opening of restaurants, so the extra outdoor seating could be open immediately on Monday morning?

Fehrenbach’s told ELi staff had anticipated getting this ordinance “passed before the Governor’s Executive Order allows for public gatherings of more than 10 people.” But that didn’t happen.

Everybody involved kept saying at public meetings that this needed to get done super fast. But, according to Fehrenbach, “We followed our normal protocols to allow for public comment and engagement,” which means several weeks of waiting.

Fehrenbach also said staff believed that, even though the plan has always been for socially-distanced tables, the tables couldn’t be put out sooner and used simply for non-alcoholic take-out because “The Governor’s [in-effect] order does not allow gatherings of more than 10 people. Creating an open air dining area to invite people to gather is in conflict with this element of the order.”

What happens after Council passes the ordinance for expanded outdoor dining areas:

According to Fehrenbach, if Council approves the outdoor food court idea, “we are planning to implement it in short order.”

The City will close a part of Albert Avenue east of the new parking garage entrance and west of M.A.C. Avenue and put in approximately 16 City-owned picnic tables for public use. These tables will come from East Lansing parks.

“The intent is to allow for alcohol consumption [in the food courts] when the open air dining area has been established,” says Fehrenbach.

If the Albert Ave. experience works well, the City plans to create two more designated areas with picnic tables, one in the Bailey Street parking lot behind Peanut Barrel, and the other in an area of on-street parking spaces on Valley Court Drive, on the south edge of the park, behind Crunchy’s.

Why not just use Valley Court Park, Sharp Park, and other green space for this? City Manager George Lahanas told the DDA last week the picnic tables would quickly degrade the grass in parks. City Attorney Tom Yeadon suggested that allowing open alcohol in parks is legally complicated and socially risky in East Lansing.

And then there are the sidewalk options:

City Planning staff recognizes that they can also help restaurants and bars by allowing them to add seating on public sidewalks outside their establishments.

But East Lansing has built up a very complicated permitting process for serving alcohol on public sidewalks – a process that takes many steps and a long time to issue a “Special Use Permit” (SUP).

In light of the desperation of the situation, Fehrenbach says his department is “working on a plan to streamline the process for temporary approval for individual restaurants that want to expand into the outdoors, including into the public right of way. This will allow some restaurants to expand their service area in alignment with the special temporary rules that the Michigan Liquor Control Commission has established. This will likely be ready for Council discussion and consideration on Tuesday [June 9] as well.”

Having this “ready for discussion” Tuesday doesn’t mean Council will pass the legislative changes on Tuesday.

Cleaning, parking, noise-control:

The DDA unanimously passed a resolution last week to dedicate $20,000 from DDA funds to paying for professional cleaning of the tables in the Albert Ave. picnic area this summer. Lahanas successfully argued that hired cleaners are necessary in order to give people the confidence to come use the space.

There was no discussion of funding or cleaning plans for the Bailey Street or Valley Court picnic areas.

The plan is to have the Albert Ave. food court area formally open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., although the tables will obviously be out 24 hours a day. The closing time of 10 p.m. is meant to limit noise that might disturb downtown residents – an important issue as the City keeps hoping to attract and keep “grown-ups” living downtown.

The parking system is now back to charging, but the City is giving parkers the first two hours free in the garages. This is meant to attract people back downtown.

Public table use will be limited to two hours per party.

The State legislature is looking at the possibility of allowing alcohol to-go in other forms, including cocktails. If that happens, that will increase the range of what people can get take-out and what they can drink in these public areas.

Which restaurants will be open?

That remains to be seen, but several are already open (right now) for take-out in the Albert Ave. area, including Blue Owl Coffee, Foster Coffee, Harper’s Brewpub, El Azteco, Omi Sushi, Coldstone Creamery, and more.

We reported last week that Barrio Tacos stated they would reopen for business only when the governor allowed dine-in service. Construction is going on at Jolly Pumpkin but they do not expect to open before Labor Day.  

Keep in mind you will also be able to eat in many other locations around East Lansing, and for those restaurants that either have private patios (like Peanut Barrell, Reno’s, or Crunchy’s) or pre-approved SUPs for outdoor dining (like HopCat and Black Cat), you could eat outside with table service, as long as the tables keep diners six feet apart.

If you’re missing your favorite place or want to try somewhere new to help out local businesses, give them a ring and find out the options.

Want to communicate your thoughts to City Council?

You can write in by email to City Council and you can speak to Council at their virtual meeting next week by phoning in.

Disclosure: ELi is sponsored by various bars and restaurants including Crunchy’s (which sponsors our weekly free newsletter) and the Responsible Hospitality Council.

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