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Boise contemplating future for expanded dining, 8th Street as COVID-19 wanes

8th Street Downtown Boise
Posted at 4:40 PM, Jul 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 18:40:06-04

This article was originally published by Margaret Carmel in BoiseDev.

Boise dining hit the streets — literally — during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but what’s next?

Last summer, Boise City Council and Ada County Highway District loosened up regulations around the right-of-way to allow restaurants and bars to take over downtown parking spots to allow for more socially distant dining. The city also closed 8th Street to vehicle traffic and restaurants moved their patios all the way to the edge of the sidewalk to make more room for outdoor tables while inside capacity was restricted.

Permanent improvements coming

Customers and 8th Street businesses alike largely embraced the change, reveling in the increased outdoor seating space and room to stroll the two blocks of 8th Street’s Restaurant Row. But now that the pandemic is waning, Boise’s Economic Development Director Sean Keithly said the city is considering how to move ahead with downtown is filling back up.

“Going back to how this happened, it was done quickly and somewhat organically and we don’t want to lose any of those benefits, but since it was an emergency response we didn’t have time to go in really deep with stakeholders and businesses and think how we would do this in a way that could look at a longer-term implementation,” Keithly said. “That’s what we want to do is think about what we’ve learned and be more intentional.”

Keithly said Mayor Lauren McLean and other city leaders haven’t decided yet what the next phase of 8th Street will look like. The city is currently taking feedback and considering its options, including how to plan for the flow of traffic through the area, accessibility for deliveries, safety for pedestrians and bicyclists and alley access.

8th Street is currently bordered by temporary bright orange traffic barriers to make sure traffic stays out of the closed street and vision-impaired pedestrians know where the pedestrian-safe street ends. The city is currently searching for a company to propose permanent ADA improvements to the intersections.

What about parklets?

Expanded dining occurred in more places than just 8th Street.

Around Boise, restaurants and bars got permission under a new ordinance to seat diners in parking spots or on the sidewalks outside of their restaurants to make more room. Idaho’s Alcohol Beverage Control also gave them permission to serve drinks in these new dining areas in the right-of-way.

This ordinance allowing the changes will expire in April 2022, but in the meantime businesses who have grown to rely on them are wondering what will happen when the rule comes up for renewal.

Molly Leadbetter, one of the co-owners of Meriwether Cider Company, said the extra space gave her downtown taproom the boost it needed to get through the pandemic. But, she said until the city and ACHD make a more firm decision on what will happen next her business is hesitant to sink a lot of money into improvements.

“If we could get those parking spaces to be ours permanently or just for the warm weather we could invest in some actual construction so we could build some parklets and make it really nice,” Leadbetter said. “For this, it’s like we didn’t want to spend too, too much money because when it’s done we will have all of the stuff but if we can get some direction we might be able to make it really pretty.”

Barbarian Brewing nearby has also enjoyed three parking spaces for a parklet, but co-owner BreAnne Hovley said they aren’t counting on the option in the future.

“People love the extra seating downtown and the fact that it’s in a parking spot doesn’t dissuade people from sitting out there and enjoying the action,” Hovely said. “But, we know our parklet situation isn’t a viable option long term because of the orange barriers and having to rent the equipment to block those.”