Milwaukee might close some streets to provide more outdoor dining as restaurants reopen amid the pandemic
In the automobile age, conventional wisdom tied commercial development to streets dominated by cars — which bring people to office buildings, hotels, restaurants and shops.
In recent years, the "Complete Streets" movement has argued streets should be reworked to better accommodate people who walk, bike and use mass transit.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging, Milwaukee is closing residential streets to make it safer for people to walk and bike while remaining 6 feet apart.
And some developers and business operators say those closings should be extended to commercial areas — and perhaps kept in place after the pandemic finally fades away.
"We don’t need to commit to long-term changes," said developer Tim Gokhman. "Let's see if people like it. And if people like, why not continue it?"
Gokhman and others are planning to seek approval from Mayor Tom Barrett's administration and the Common Council to close a small number of commercial streets on Milwaukee's east side, and possibly the downtown area.
That would allow businesses, mainly restaurants, to expand outdoor space and serve more customers while still using social distancing.
Informal surveys of restaurant customers, conducted in the pandemic's wake, show they are much more likely to patronize businesses with outdoor dining, Gokhman said.
That's in line with updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread," according to the guidelines.
So, while the lowest risk is drive-thru, delivery, takeout and curbside pickup, onsite dining limited to outdoor seating — with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart — is the next best option for restaurants, according to the CDC.
That could apply to other businesses, said Gokhman, New Land Enterprises LLP managing director.
"I’d get a haircut outside," he said.
But the focus is on restaurants — including those at Crossroads Collective, a small food hall in a New Land building at 2238 N. Farwell Ave.
The East Side Business Improvement District is finding support among neighborhood business operators for closing part of East Ivanhoe Place between Farwell and Prospect avenues, said Elizabeth Brodek, executive director.
Another closing could be sought for North Murray Avenue, between North and Thomas avenues, she said.
The Ivanhoe Place closing would provide more outdoor space for Crossroads Collective's eateries, as well as Hooligan's, Brodek said.
The street closings would likely be proposed for evenings and weekends, Brodek and Gokhman said.
That would maintain daytime business access for Educators Credit Union, at the corner of Ivanhoe Place and Prospect Avenue, as well as Murray Avenue's PNC Bank and U.S. Bank.
Another challenge: making sure people living at Overlook on Prospect apartments, at Ivanhoe Place and Prospect Avenue, have access to their building's parking garage.
That would be done by converting Ivanhoe Place from one-way traffic to two-way traffic off of Prospect Avenue, Brodek said.
Overlook operator Robert Joseph supports that idea, and the street closings.
"The more we can get people outside, the more likelihood of having some business," Joseph said.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Downtown and Historic Third Ward business improvement districts are pursuing plans for expanded outdoor dining in those areas, according to officials from both groups.
That outdoor dining space is badly needed, said Jim Plaisted, executive director of the Third Ward district.
Milwaukee restaurants haven't yet received approval from city officials to reopen.
But, when they do, Plaisted expects their business to be limited to 25% of seating capacity. That's based on what's happened with restaurants in other communities that have reopened.
"In order to create enough seating with proper social distancing restaurants are going to need a heck of a lot of outdoor dining space," said Bob Monnat, chief operating officer at development firm Mandel Group Inc.
"I think patio dining is going to explode this summer," Monnat said. "No one’s going to eat inside unless it’s raining."
Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District has been working with city officials to develop a simple way for restaurants to obtain additional outdoor space, said Beth Weirick, chief executive officer.
"Our team is having lots of conversations with our small business owners and they need our help and support if they are to remain viable," she said.
Weirick said her group's request for more outdoor space doesn't involve looking at "a complete street closure." Plaisted said his group is looking at proposed street closings, but said the district isn't ready yet to provide details.
However, one possibility for more street dining space was suggested by Ald. Robert Bauman, whose aldermanic district includes downtown.
"I can see Jefferson (Street) being the perfect street from Mason (Street) to Kilbourn (Avenue)," Bauman said during a May meeting of the council's Public Works Committee, which he chairs.
That portion of North Jefferson Street features several restaurants and taverns.
More outdoor seating could be provided through the city's parklet program, said Bauman and city Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske at that meeting.
A parklet involves replacing street parking spaces in front of a restaurant with seasonal outdoor seating in return for a fee paid by the business.
Weirick said any outdoor seating plan would be flexible, and take into account such factors as access for people with disabilities; accommodating deliveries and emergency vehicles, and maintaining curbside pickup.
"We're balancing interests," he said.
The program's results would depend on the willingness of businesses and customers to observe social distancing and other rules, Weirick said.
The push for commercial streets to close comes as the Common Council on Wednesday unanimously approved temporarily closing low-volume residential streets to through traffic to create more social distancing for walking, running and cycling.
The pilot program, dubbed Milwaukee Active Streets, is initially targeting 7.5 miles of residential streets and 2.5 miles of parkways in Milwaukee County Parks.
The city streets remain open to emergency vehicles, delivery vehicles and people who live or work on the streets.
Milwaukee Active Streets is an outgrowth of the Complete Streets movement.
Complete Streets redesigns streets to reduce lanes for cars, while widening sidewalks, adding bike lanes and better accommodating mass transit.
Supporters say that make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, while also drawing more development.
Automobiles aren’t going away, but there need to be more options, Monnat said.
"It’s unbelievably expensive to maintain all of the streets we drive on," he said.
"Bikes and pedestrians are low-cost alternatives," Monnat said. "They simply need to take back a small percentage of the space allocated to cars in order to thrive."
Of course, closing streets — even temporarily — means a loss of parking. That could bring opposition to the proposals.
The loss of parking spaces isn't a major problem for the East Side Business Improvement District, Brodek said.
She cited the free public parking on nights and weekends at Ascension-Columbia St. Mary's Prospect Medical Commons parking structure, 2311 N. Prospect Ave.
"We don’t really have a parking problem," Brodek said. "It’s dense, but you can definitely find parking nearby where you want to go."
Such objections shouldn't override the need for restaurants to have expanded space in order to survive, Gokhman said.
He said Milwaukee needs to act promptly to help those businesses.
"People are always going to find reasons as to why it’s a challenge." he said.
"But the bottom line is so many other cities in the United States and Canada do this, and it works," Gokhman said. "There is literally no example of a commercial district that widened its sidewalks and regretted it."