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Can city life stay more al fresco post-pandemic?

Can city life stay more al fresco post-pandemic?
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To meet new COVID-19 safety protocols for reopening, many commercial places are going to have to turn themselves inside-out. Store items may migrate to sidewalk displays. Restaurants without outdoor seating may have to create some. Bars may have to turn parking lots into beer gardens. In other words, our cities need to become more Parisian. But because of short-sighted zoning laws, Parisian is illegal in most American cities.

Local zoning laws control nearly everything that is built in this country. They dictate how buildings can be used, how tall they can be, and where they can be located. If local businesses are to reopen in a way that provides for more safe distancing between patrons, most zoning laws will need quick, radical reform. If these changes become permanent, U.S. cities will become more vibrant for the long-term. 

Take sidewalk retailers. In Paris, booksellers galore line the quays along the Seine. Montmartre is full of artists hawking prints. Near every Metro station in central Paris, vendors sell trinkets and souvenirs. Few places in the U.S. approach the liveliness of this scene. New York City’s mid-size grocers and The Strand bookstore come to mind. 

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The absence of street vending in the U.S. largely is explained by local laws regulating the use of sidewalks. In the minds of many zoning authorities, outdoor displays of goods aren’t tidy. They suggest bargain shopping. They obstruct clear passage. 

Likewise cafes en plein air are a hallmark of the City of Lights but are banned in many American cities. When they are allowed, restauranteurs must jump through one permitting hoop after another. Often, outdoor seating has various dimensional constraints: minimum requirements to ensure adequate depth, maximum requirements so they don’t get too big. 

But it’s parking that will likely be the biggest barrier to moving indoor activities outside. With car use plummeting during the COVID-19 pandemic, many parking lots are sitting idle. Spots are likely to remain at least partly empty given that businesses will have to limit the number of patrons inside. Even if restrictions were completely lifted today, it will take months, maybe even a year or more — to fill these lots again. For grocers, restauranteurs, bar owners, and retailers, the possibility of converting these lots into usable space has a lot of appeal. But zoning laws will prevent most conversions, because of requirements that each lot has a minimum number of parking spaces. 

Minimum parking requirements are terrible for many reasons. They encourage more driving, pave over our green spaces, and give cars supremacy they don’t deserve. But with the pandemic, they seem even more sinister. If we can’t re-use parking lots in new ways, we risk overcrowding our indoor spaces, at great risk to public health. 

Some immediate reopening needs may be thwarted by bad design: most notably, narrow sidewalks. Cities all over the country have already taken advantage of reduced traffic during the stay-at-home period of the pandemic to close streets or traffic lanes to cars and convert them for bicycle and pedestrian use. Once residents get a taste of reclaiming these parts of the urban landscape from motor vehicles, they might not want to give them back post-pandemic. 

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COVID-19 will likely push local regulators to change many rules that hamper a safe reopening. Zoning officials would be smart to use that opportunity to rethink sidewalks and streets — especially who and what they are for.

Hartford might offer other cities, especially mid-sized cities, a glimpse at the positive impact of such reforms. We changed the zoning code several years ago to enable outdoor shop displays (with four feet of sidewalk clearance), farmer's markets, and outdoor cafes. 

Hartford was also the first city in the country to eliminate minimum parking requirements for every type of building (residential and commercial alike) — encouraging conversion of parking to almost anything else. We have reinforced anti-car, pro-people, outdoor-living priorities in our City Plan, focused on Hartford’s 400th anniversary in 2035, that we expect to adopt next week. Later this month, we’ll do even more to ensure businesses can reopen safely. 

We’re not trying to be Paris here in Hartford. But stealing some of the City of Light’s outdoor vitality might improve our ability to contain the coronavirus as we reopen our economy — and build a city we’ll love more in the long term. 

Sara C. Bronin is the chair of the City of Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission, a law professor, and an architect.