From the Opinion Panel: Outdoor dining in downtown Boulder

City council is discussing options to support downtown restaurants through the expansion of outdoor dining. Some restaurant owners are opposed to the change, which they say has lowered foot traffic and sales. Your take?

Outdoor dining on Pearl Street in August 2020 (Courtesy Eric Budd)

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Mike Chiropolos: Vibrant, livable cities start with vibrant, car-free outdoor spaces

The pedestrian mall is the best feature of Boulder’s downtown. Permanently extending this public space west to 9th Street is a no-brainer.

They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. During my last visit to Ithaca, New York, around 2014, that college town in the Empire State was ripping up several square blocks of downtown for a new pedestrian mall that is now, per the Downtown Ithaca website, “jam-packed with more than 100 independently owned and operated shops and boutiques, gift shops, restaurants, art galleries, service providers, street vendors and entertainers.

Like Pearl Street, Ithaca Commons has thrived.

As we recover from the pandemic, let’s seize the opportunity to create more great public spaces for a more livable Boulder.

On West Pearl, the Big Red F restaurant group (West End, Jax, Centro and The Post), sounded all-in on outdoor dining, calling it a “lifesaver.” Ozo Coffee Shop raved that it’s “hard to say enough good things” about the expanded mall, including good energy, good atmosphere and a good vibe.

More recently, though, Big Red F called for letting vehicles back, and Ozo lauded the “convenience of zipping in and out on car trips.” Let’s redesign the space so that summer closures work for local restaurants and agree that this isn’t the location for the equivalent of a drive-through coffee stand depending on car traffic.

Two ideas to make an expanded mall better than before are: 1.) a produce stand to promote local agriculture; and 2.) weekly attractions such as outdoor bluegrass jams, poetry slams, test-rides on e-bikes, or trike races.

Historic Downtown Louisville’s pandemic-motivated three-season car closure created a smashingly successful Main Street experience that is to outdoor dining in Colorado what Red Rocks is to outdoor concerts. More of that, please! 

I’ll close with one big and one smaller idea worth borrowing from other cities. First, the big idea: Boulder should look to Copenhagen’s success at realizing its sustainability vision, climate goals and livability metrics on metrics like clean mobility, public spaces and carbon reductions.

Second, the smaller idea: Ithaca has one of the best farmer’s markets in North America. We should look at permanent stalls for a Boulder County Farmers Market experience that weaves in aspects of frontier trading posts and doesn’t require vendors to set up tents and tables twice a week. If the current location doesn’t work, maybe convert a strip mall parking lot in Boulder or pioneer the Longmont fairgrounds.  

(Editor’s note: This opinion piece was updated to include more recent statements on outdoor dining from Big Red F and Ozo.)

Mike Chiropolos lives in Boulder where he raised two sons and spends time thinking about conservation and community. More about Mike.

Claudia Hanson Thiem: The public right-of-way can evolve

My family’s COVID protocols (and budget) have kept me on the sidelines of Boulder’s pandemic-era outdoor dining scene. But I’d be sad to see it end.

West Pearl, the center of the experiment, was a magical place last year. While some restaurants took liberties with their new freedoms, you didn’t have to pay for a table to enjoy sunlight and views from the center of the street, or soak in the quiet buzz of people that’s audible when cars disappear.

Boulder’s proposal for expanding outdoor dining — in which restaurants would lease city-owned parklets — isn’t limited to the downtown pedestrian zones. But it’s in those precious blocks that the debate comes into focus.

Expanded outdoor dining is a “problem” because it makes a new claim on the public right-of-way. Most people don’t think about how we allocate our shared spaces on a daily basis. Decisions recede into the past, and we assume that what’s given will remain. But most streets and sidewalks belong to the community, and that means their uses can evolve to meet community needs.

Parking (the past) and dining (the possible future) are only two of many activities we might allow in the right-of-way, and both serve different private interests. In that sense, there’s little difference between one business seeing profits in sidewalk seating, and another that has built cheap curbside parking into its bottom line. But the former can do more to build public life.

Like most American cities, Boulder has ceded the bulk of its right-of-way to cars, leaving only scraps for people to wander, linger and gather. As a community, I think we’re poorer for that choice. And as individuals, we’re often sadder. Outdoor dining claws back space for social life, however imperfectly.

Of course, a dining free-for-all could squeeze pedestrian passageways, or become a pretense for heavy-handed policing. Preserving accessible parking for people with limited mobility is another legitimate concern. But these are issues that can be addressed with thoughtful rules and not reasons to shy away from change.

Any new rules for restaurants will likely be narrow in scope. Boulder is ripe for larger discussion about the public right-of-way. Sidewalks and streets are some of our most valuable collective assets, and we’ve forgotten their potential over time. Outdoor dining marks one start of that conversation. It shouldn’t be the end.

Claudia Hanson Thiem lives and parents in Boulder, and breathes city politics through work with Boulder Progressives, Boulder Library Champions, and the Boulder Housing Network. More about Claudia.


Boulder Beat Opinion Panel members are writing in their own capacity. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Boulder Beat.

Got a different take? Write a Guest Opinion using our op-ed and comment guidelines or submit an application to join the Opinion Panel.


Want more stories like this, delivered straight to your inbox?
Sign up for a weekly newsletter from Boulder Beat.

* indicates required



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: