It’s time for Flex Zones in Tucson

How to reopen restaurants and provide safe space for patrons? The answer’s right under your feet.

With Arizona’s stay-at-home order ending, businesses are faced with a difficult dilemma: for many—especially within the restaurant industry—the numbers just don’t work. While they’re legally permitted to reopen, most restaurants, bars, and cafes already operated pre-pandemic on thin profit margins that maximized every square foot of their establishment’s floor plan. With the need to create more distance between tables, dine-in options are just not profitable. This is further exacerbated by many people’s reluctance to resume previous dining habits, as scientific modeling reveals how closed-loop heating and cooling systems can easily spread the virus.

So how can businesses make it work? How can they reopen in a way that’s both profitable and makes their clientele and staff feel safe? The answer is all around us.

Streets and parking lots are an abundant and often underutilized resource to tap into. Indeed Pima County recently issued guidelines for restaurants looking to re-open that suggested waiving zoning requirements to encourage outdoor patio seating in parking lots, on-street parking spaces, and other rights of way. This is the time to move rapidly to transform excess asphalt into extended dining—and even retail—space that will help businesses survive.

COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon; it’s entirely possible that cities across the U.S. will need to “close down” and “open up” again with a second wave of the pandemic in the fall and winter. Businesses need solutions that are flexible and easily scaled-up and down until the pandemic ends. Converting parking space to dining space is optimal: it doesn’t require relocation or a huge amount of additional investment. It doesn’t require a total rebuild, which is costly to businesses that are hanging on by a thread. Additionally, most all businesses have streets in front of them, and parking spaces adjacent.

So what could this really look like?

Parking to Pop-Up-Shop: Most businesses in the Tucson area have parking lots or on-street parking. A portion of parking spaces can be transformed with tables, chairs, shade canopies and minimal fencing to establish expanded dining or retail space.

Flex Zones/Flex Streets: Business districts have an exciting opportunity to become especially attractive outdoor destinations. This could take shape by electing to turn entire parking lanes into continuous outdoor dining and retails space, giving each business an additional 320 square feet (the area of one parallel parking spot) or more of dining or retail space adjacent to their storefront. Or, in some cases, they could effectively become ad-hoc pedestrian malls, where freight deliveries and emergency vehicles still have access, but people are otherwise free to roam, shop, and dine with room to safely distance from other shoppers and diners. Business owners would benefit from shared take-out pick-up zones and having the ability to pool resources to attract more customers.

This solution isn’t rocket science. Indeed cities like Berkeley, California, Tampa, Florida, and Breckenridge, Colorado are moving quickly to convert entire streets into giant outdoor dining rooms. Corridors all over Tucson have a density of destinations that would make full-corridor flex streets a shoe-in: La Doce (South 12th Avenue), Main Gate Square, Historic 4th Avenue, Congress Street and Broadway Boulevard in downtown, Campbell Avenue Business District, and more. As a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, Tucson is well positioned to benefit from this quick transformation, helping support local businesses and also allow tourism—one of the area’s main economic drivers—to begin to return at some level.

Additional Resources & Information

  • California firm, Studioneleven, has produced guidance on how to create Flex Zones to reopen main street environments
  • Better Block Foundation has Wikiblock templates to fabricate low-cost outdoor furniture quickly and easily
  • Long Beach has a highly successful Parklet Program—a major economic initiative—that provides guidance and a streamlined process for transforming on-street parking into additional seating area, as does San Francisco

Flex Zones making news in other cities

Breckenridge considers pedestrian-only Main Street to allow for outdoor restaurants and retail

Tampa Closes Streets For Outdoor Restaurant Dining

St. Petersburg is considering letting restaurants expand seating into streets

Reopening small restaurants could mean closing streets to use for outdoor seating

NYC’s Restaurant Reopening Could Include Outdoor Seating On Closed Streets

Berkeley Will Fully Close Its Streets to Create Giant Outdoor Dining Room

Comments are closed.