The COVID-19 pandemic was a slow-motion disaster that killed thousands of Minnesotans and affected nearly everyone in negative ways. That said, there were some silver linings: better unemployment benefits, free transit, more flexible workplaces, and parkways closed to cars, just to name a few. Most of these changes were temporary, but some of them might stand the test of time.
My favorite COVID-induced improvement is the widespread trend of bars, breweries, and restaurants, all throughout the city, converting parking lots into patios.
It’s fascinating to watch because off-street parking lots are as precious a commodity as you’ll find in the restaurant business. Before COVID-19 upended everyday life, many a business plan had been shot down for want of 12 feet of asphalt, thanks to zoning code requirements or neighbors concerned about traffic and parking. Popular restaurants often went to great lengths — buying and tearing down a neighboring house, leasing spaces from the church across the street — to acquire a bit more asphalt for customers’ empty cars.
So it’s remarkable that popular restaurants, breweries and bars have been converting treasured surface parking into outdoor patios, and displaying a great range of improvised landscaping skills in the process. Partly driven by concern over COVID transmission, it’s also a sign that, especially now, people love to be outside. After a year of being cooped up in the house, perhaps Minnesotans are gaining courage when it comes to life al fresco.
The transformation is happening thanks to the relaxation of stringent off-street parking regulations in many metro cities. In St. Paul, Mayor Melvin Carter issued an executive order last summer that put in place a relaxation of requirements, and allowed patio expansions onto existing parking lots or even public rights-of-way. Minneapolis has a similar program that expires in November.
“It’s going great! It was essential for us, particularly last summer,” said a brewery spokesperson from West 7th Street’s Bad Weather Brewery, when I reached out about the new patio. “We are very fortunate we had the space that could be converted easy enough. Even now we see a big benefit. While we can be at 100% capacity inside, it’s still nice to have extra space to spread out, particularly outdoors. I know our staff is appreciative of that, and I imagine customers are happy too.”
Normally, few parts of St. Paul offer parking challenges as taxing as the streets along West 7th, about a mile west of the Xcel Center arena. These days, at least to my eyes, it’s fairly easy to park a car.
“The obvious con would be losing a few parking spots, although we still have a side parking lot and there is free parking along West 7th,” the brewery staffer said. “West 7th does seem to have been more open for parking, with more people working from home and less events downtown.”
As long as dedicated space for people with disabilities remains a priority (as stated in the ordinance), most people seem eager to trade a a longer walk from their car for a better experience once they arrive.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis the same kind of transformation has been commonplace, all across the city, everywhere ranging from a small Mexican place like Dominguez Family Restaurant in the Keewaydin neighborhood to the bustling Pig Ate My Pizza in Robbinsdale.
“The patio expansion was a pretty big silver lining that’s come from the pandemic,” said Lindsay Slanga, hospitality director at Indeed Brewing. “For starters, it provided us extra space to add plenty of seating while also being able to practice social distancing between tables. We would have been in a really tough spot without it. Our patio before the expansion had capacity for about 60 people at the maximum capacity. Now we’re able to seat 160 guests and it’s consistently occupied.”
On any given weekend, Indeed’s former parking lot, nestled between historic industrial buildings and the well-used BNSF train tracks, is bursting with people milling about with beer in hand. Most notably for a Minnesotan establishment, the patio operated through the winter!
“The loss of eight parking spaces is well worth the outdoor beer drinking experience it’s provided to our guests,” said Slanga. “Also, we’re in Minnesota, if a guest has the chance to sit outside, they usually take it.”
For folks parking their cars, there are a bunch of options, including a large paid parking lot two blocks down Quincy Street. While the parking is not next to the entrance, for most people, the extra walk through a lovely Northeast industrial area is well worth the tradeoff.
Nobody knows how long the relaxed rules will last, and years from now, we all might look back on 2021 as the summer of patios. But with both Minneapolis and (soon, I hope) St. Paul are relaxing their parking requirements, perhaps it’s time to look at commercial parking lots in a new way.
“People have responded really well to our expanded patio setup, and while we’d love to permanently keep it in place and winterize it again,” said Slanga, “our temporary expansion from the City of Minneapolis expires November 1, so we’re back to the drawing board to get creative on what this winter outdoor experience will look like.”
Personally, I think more and longer-season patios are a great idea for Minnesotans (who love to humblebrag about surviving winter). I hope the parking-to-patio tradeoff becomes a permanent fixture of our city. Granting businesses the flexibility to decide how best to use their space seems like a great idea, and many business owners will no doubt take advantage of the opportunity to use asphalt in more creative ways. After all, walking the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul becomes even more inviting when there’s an outdoor patio awaiting your arrival.