Will Forsman said the addition of an outdoor patio on Broadway Avenue has helped increase exposure for Cafe Steam as it recovers from the impact COVID-19 had on the business.
“It’s really hard to miss a corn crib, especially one that takes up part of the street,” he said, adding that people have noted the patio has drawn them to the coffee shop. .
The patio surrounded by concrete traffic barriers is one of several that appeared last year as Rochester officials tried to help businesses respond to restrictions put on them as COVID-19 hit the state.
“This is one of the first things we got going,” said Holly Masek, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance, who worked with the city to make the expanded patios a reality.
- Time for a comeback? Downtown's recovery is slower with less of a daily workforce
Today, four businesses -- Cafe Steam, Potbelly Sandwich Shop, The Half Barrel and Pasquale's Neighborhood Pizzeria -- have patios that extend into the street, and Bleu Duck continues to have its outdoor patio extension in the alley off Fourth Street Southwest.
The expanded patios have Rochester City Council approval through October, at which point the weather typically makes outdoor seating disappear.
Christiaan Cartwright, the city’s license examiner, said that means the city will revert to past practices for sidewalk seating, unless policy changes are made.
The potential for change is in the works, with Rochester Heritage Preservation and Urban Design Coordinator Molly Patterson-Lungren working on proposals for the city council to review, perhaps as early as next month.
She’s studying the potential for two ways for using street spaces. One would create a truly public space with seating, and the other would allow businesses to have their own dedicated patio extension.
“They may look exactly the same, but it’s about who gets to use that space,” she said.
She said several factors, from potential permit costs to design standards, are being considered as the city moves from its emergency response to a more formal process, since last year’s emergency action came without many guidelines.
Forsman said he hopes changes don’t bog down the approval process or add unrealistic expenses for business owners that want to continue to have outdoor patios.
He said he understands the need for the city to consider lost parking revenue, but he also sees the patios as bringing vitality to the area.
“The city needs to identify what is in its best interest,” he said, suggesting the increased awareness of downtown activity has value.
“There’s the perception that downtown is dead, when the opposite is true,” he said.
Raelynn Chase, Potbelly’s general manager, said she agrees that the patio has been a draw for the business as it recoups.
“It’s utilized every day by a lot of people,” she said.
Masek said such experiences send a message to passersby, alerting them that the businesses are open and popular, which will continue to spur downtown activity.
“It just changes the feeling of downtown Rochester, so I hope the city continues to support it,” she said.
Concerns about taking up parking spaces were cited when the city first experimented with the concept on Third Street Southwest in 2019. When the former Grand Rounds was granted permission to take over three parking spaces, some neighboring business owners objected.
Masek said she hopes attitudes have changed, noting downtown streets still have many parking spaces available.
Patterson-Lungren said the pandemic and use of outdoor seating might have helped spur what has been seen as inevitable change.
“As a community, we are slowly changing,” she said. “We are coming to terms with the fact that we need to shift the way we experience downtown.”
The street patio seating isn't limited to restaurants and bars in the Historic Third Street area.
Work on First Avenue, south of Center Street, is expanding outdoor seating opportunities for Victoria’s and the Olde Brick House.
Natalie Victoria, co-owner of Victoria’s, said the added seating has benefited her business and she would support efforts to help her neighbors find added seating.
“There’s something about taking advantage of the Minnesota summers,” she said.
Some businesses that already had outdoor seating tried the expanded option last year, but scaled back.
“We didn’t find that to be a big benefit last year,” said David Currie, co-owner of nearby Hefe Rojo, Newt's and City Market.
Heje Rojo has a large outdoor patio in an off-sidewalk space and next door City Market has sidewalk seating.
Masek said the downtown alliance has been working to add public seating throughout downtown, including on Peace Plaza and at the waterfront near Mayo Civic Center.
“Not every restaurant has an easy space they can access, so we are giving spaces to them,” she said.