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Pandemic gave a jump-start to Rochester outdoor dining

2 April 2022

ROCHESTER – One silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud can be seen on the streets downtown and elsewhere in this southern Minnesota city.

The pandemic boosted outdoor dining, an idea that had been slowly gaining steam in recent years.

In 2020 as the pandemic first started and bars and restaurants faced restrictions on indoor dining, Rochester establishments created more than two dozen outdoor dining spaces, with more than 15 of them in the downtown district.

They took the form of sidewalk cafes, patios and “parklets”: decklike structures that occupy the street lane normally reserved for parking.

City planners had been encouraging outdoor dining in recent years, but the pandemic accelerated the process, said Molly Patterson-Lundgren, heritage preservation and urban design coordinator for the city’s Community Development Department.

“It was the pressure that creates the diamond,” she said. As bars and restaurants got the OK to reopen, some dropped their outdoor spaces, but even with the reduction, the city has more than it did before the pandemic, she said.

The Rochester Downtown Alliance (RDA) played a leading role in the effort, working with business owners to help them make rapid plans. The city also moved quickly, creating emergency permitting and sending out teams of inspectors to move the process along.

“It was very quick,” said Holly Masek, RDA’s executive director. “The city people went around to restaurants and literally sketched [plans] out in chalk.”

The RDA bought more than 200 chairs and tables to encourage street life, and offered grants of up to $2,000 to help businesses defray their costs, said Karli McElroy, the alliance’s director of operations.

Before the pandemic, there was interest in outdoor dining, “but there wasn’t the urgency,” Masek said.

Minneapolis and St. Paul residents are familiar with the challenges of supporting downtown street life in cities where much of the pedestrian traffic has moved into skyways. Rochester faces an even greater hurdle because the city not only has skyways — it has subways.

Street dining can be an important ingredient in the recipe for a livelier downtown, Lundgren said.

“The way cities develop over time, they tend to be intensely developed,” she said. “We tend to build upwards rather than outwards. So we’ve got a lot of concrete; we’ve got a lot of very utilitarian spaces.

“The idea of establishing a place where people can gather softens that urban environment. You introduce human beings who are conversing with each other. You can add music, add plantings. And it starts to make it a more people-centered place, rather than one that’s hard, technical and machine-oriented.”

The RDA is launching several new initiatives this year to enliven downtown. The alliance already sponsors the successful Thursdays Downtown program, a weekly summer festival that brings as many as 20,000 people and 100 vendors downtown.

Visitors this summer can expect to see new murals as well as lawn games, outdoor music and art in a newly remodeled Central Park, McElroy said. The RDA and its member businesses are even taking steps to enliven downtown alleys with string lights and gathering spaces.

Overcoming the challenges of the pandemic has been a valuable learning experience, Masek said.

“Reminding people to talk to their neighbors and work together has been part of this,” she said.

Now the city is revising its ordinances on outdoor dining, using lessons learned from the pandemic-crash program.

“We were really poised as a city to take a look at this [before the pandemic] and establish more of a standard policy that we would use,” Lundgren said. “In many ways, the pandemic provided us with a scenario where we really had to focus in on certain issues.”

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