Diners enjoy a meal on an outdoor patio in Denver.

Patio City

The pros and cons of Denver’s proposed “Outdoor Places Program”

When the world was hit with a global pandemic in March of 2020, the city of Denver’s once-bustling restaurants and bars were forced to shut their doors completely. Strict government health and safety mandates ruled out indoor dining, leaving many establishments without an alternative. In an attempt to provide struggling businesses with a lifeline, the City of Denver announced a temporary outdoor dining program, aptly named the “Temporary Outdoor Dining Program”.

The Temporary Outdoor Dining Program Is Scheduled to Sunset

Outdoor dining on Denver’s famous Larimer Square street. Photo by Trey Ratcliff.
Outdoor dining on Denver’s famous Larimer Square street. Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Launched in May of 2020, the Temporary Outdoor Dining Program allowed restaurants to apply for a permit to utilize their business’s adjacent outdoor space for dining. For many restaurants, this meant taking over sections of busy streets, parking lots, and even sidewalks. While this was more of a necessity than a diner’s preference, restaurant owners took advantage of the extra space by building custom dining setups that were an outdoor extension of their space. Quickly, the outdoor dining experience became a Covid sign-of-the-times, right up there with hand sanitizer and facemasks.

Since its introduction, over 370 restaurants and bars have participated in Denver’s Temporary Outdoor Dining Program. Due to the program’s popularity among city residents, Denver’s mayor Michael Hancock announced in 2021 that the Temporary Dining Program will run until October 2022, at which point it will become permanent under a new name, the “Outdoor Places Program”. This summer, over happy hour drinks on an outdoor patio, we’re looking at the pros and cons of Denver’s proposed permanent Outdoor Places Program and how it will affect Denver’s outdoor dining landscape.

The Upsides of Denver’s Outdoor Patios

Diners LOVE outdoor patios

Patrons across Denver that have dined at and enjoyed these innovative outdoor spaces are major proponents of them staying for good. For diners, they provide an al fresco dining option that many Denverites crave as well as the opportunity to dine in a creative, outdoor setting. Shorter wait times at restaurants have also made outdoor seating more desirable to patrons.

Restaurants benefit from increased capacity

Over 70% of restaurants surveyed by the Colorado Restaurant Association want to turn their once-temporary set-ups into long-term spaces. This is due to outdoor seating immediately enabling restaurants to expand service capacity, increasing revenue by accommodating more customers. Owners have also spent large amounts of time and money adapting their business models as well as on creating safe, outdoor seating structures. Both are hefty investments they still need to recover.

Community spirit increased as traffic decreased

Traffic congestion died down during the early days of Covid with many staying at home. However, outdoor dining also had a role in easing congestion. Fewer cars meant that entire streets could be shut down to accommodate more outdoor seating, creating a community atmosphere that eased tensions when something as simple as dining out seemed scary to some. Outdoor patios have also calmed traffic to slower speeds, making neighborhoods feel more walkable, bikeable, and generally friendly to pedestrians and residents.

The Downsides of Denver’s Outdoor Patios

Greater risk of traffic accidents due to congestion

Denverites enjoy dining in the street amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. Photo by Garry Knight.
Denverites enjoy dining in the street amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. Photo by Garry Knight

New designated outdoor dining spaces are often located in parking lots, streets, and sidewalks adjacent to their respective businesses. This can obstruct a passerby’s everyday commute. With less room to walk, ride, and drive, the public is facing new safety challenges such as road congestion, creating more opportunities for bike and scooter accidents. 

Unpredictable weather can wreak havoc

Outdoor dining spaces are subject to whatever seasonal weather conditions are present. Be it rain, snow, wind, or blazing hot temperatures, harsh weather can obstruct al fresco outdoor dining and force restaurants to re-shutter their patios for the time being. This unpredictability is a major factor for some restaurants that rely heavily on their outdoor spaces for capacity. Not to mention outdoor shading, cooling, and heating systems can quickly drive up the costs of maintaining an outdoor dining setup.

Permitting for public spaces is a three-way conversation

As mentioned in Kay Stallworthy’s recent article for the Colorado Real Estate Journal on embracing pandemic-inspired consumer patterns, public spaces should be designed and permitted with all stakeholders in mind. Permits need to be evaluated based on how well suited a business is for the space it’s occupying, prioritizing the public’s interests alongside the city’s and the commercial tenants’. “Not every space can be a Main Street”, writes Kay, “and trying to force that uniqueness can dilute the importance of the true Main Streets. Some places are more utilitarian and serve a distinct need.”

The future of open-air dining

No one can deny that the Temporary Outdoor Dining Program was crucial to the survival of Denver’s restaurant industry. It was also a successful way to ensure safe dining amidst an unpredictable global pandemic. While the details of the replacement Outdoor Places Program are still being determined, diners are still flocking to sidewalks and street patios for their favorite entrees – especially during the warm-weather months of summer – proving that the pandemic has reshaped the future of public spaces in Denver for years to come.