Elk Avenue was more vibrant this summer
An initial town review of the summer landscape that is Elk Avenue brought out questions of fairness and crowding with the Crested Butte Town Council at a recent meeting. In the end, the council appears headed toward raising fees on restaurants that elect to have outdoor seating on the sidewalks in the summer.
Mayor Leah Williams said it may be appropriate for the newly elected council to have a “sit down” with Elk Avenue business owners after the November election to discuss what works and what doesn’t on Elk Avenue. It is a mixture of benches and bike racks, lampposts and outdoor sidewalk seating. Bikes and pedestrians and baby joggers all make for a crowded experience that some see as vibrant and others see as cluttered.
“We have a lot of stuff going on out there,” said Crested Butte building official Bob Gillie. “That is neither good nor bad. It is in the eye of the beholder. When July is busy, it is a bit packed out there between all the people and the stuff.”
“Private uses on public property jumped out at me,” said Williams. “There is a lot of that, whether it is benches, flower pots, or chairs.”
“The benches have never seemed like a nuisance to me,” said Councilperson Dan Escalante. “To me the one big thing that might be a problem is the pushing of the outdoor seating. We all like the idea but those that already have outdoor seating and get more seems silly. Maxwell’s is a good example. And maybe we should consider raising the fees for those that add outdoor seating on the public sidewalk.”
Restaurants are currently charged $3 per square foot by the town to place tables and chairs on the sidewalk in front of their establishment. The maximum area permitted is seven feet out from the front of the building.
“If it’s a screaming deal—maybe it shouldn’t be so much of a screaming deal,” said Escalante. “For those places that already have seats, it seems like overkill.”
“Fees should reflect the costs incurred by the town, so maybe they do have to go up a bit,” said Councilperson Phoebe Wilson.
“I don’t think you can say you can’t have outdoor seating on sidewalks just because you have outdoor seating already,” countered Councilperson Jim Schmidt. “That’s not fair. We need to offer it to everybody if we offer it to anybody. Now I do agree that it seemed Maxwell’s space seemed to stick out too far.”
Schmidt, an Alpine Express bus driver, said none of the tourists he ferried back to the airport complained about Elk Avenue being too congested this summer.
“I think we had a really busy summer and I didn’t hear any complaints,” seconded Councilperson Roland Mason. “Having that seating and seeing people eat outdoors added to the vibrancy of Elk Avenue in a good way.”
Brick Oven Pizzeria co-owner Dan Loftus told the council he liked the overall concept of sidewalk seating but felt a bit chafed. “We paid a boatload of money in parking-in-lieu fees for outdoor seating and to see other restaurants get it for practically nothing hurts,” he said. “The playing field isn’t level for us or Paradise Café or the Steep, who already had outdoor seats. We paid the fees and it doesn’t feel fair. They are getting what we paid for but for free.”
“The other restaurants pay $300 or so every year,” said Williams. “They have to move it in every night and it’s seasonal.”
“That’s life in the mountains,” said Loftus. “It’s all seasonal. And we break down our outdoor stuff every night too. It seems elementary. Charge them the parking fees too. It’s what we did.”
“It does seem fair that the new people should pay similar fees,” said Escalante.
“We talked about this perception of fairness coming up when we started implementing this,” said Gillie. “And lo and behold, here we are talking about it.”
“I’m a fan of outdoor seating,” said Loftus. “But maybe you should consider issuing a refund for those who paid the parking fees or charge those who get the benefit but haven’t paid.”
“Can we add $1 or $2 a square foot and put it in the parking fund?” asked Councilperson John Wirsing.
“The fairness issue is that the Brick can do it if they want as well,” said Schmidt. “Is it appropriate to charge something for parking? Probably. But it shouldn’t be complicated. “
“The idea is to encourage a vibrant look and feel for Elk Avenue,” reiterated Mason. “It’s to make it a good experience for the tourists. Maybe we give a discount to places like the Brick if they want to expand onto the sidewalk.”
“Look. Outdoor seating works. It gives it a vibrant feel,” said Loftus. “In good weather, those seats are packed. No one will back out if you raise the fees.”
“I think the fees could be adjusted,” said Wilson. The council generally agreed and the staff will return with recommendations.
In other Elk Avenue discussion, Williams broached the idea of retail stores putting things like clothes racks out on the sidewalks. “Is that appropriate?” she asked. “What does that do for the look of town?”
“Hey, I feel at home in a place that feels like it has a bit of a flea market feel,” said Escalante. “I don’t like everything all neat and tidy.”
“One thing to remember is that we’re a resort community and a National Historic District,” said Williams. “Elk Avenue shouldn’t look like a mess.”
Wilson said if restaurants could essentially rent public sidewalk space, retailers should be given similar opportunity.
“Is a café feel good and a flea market feel not?” she asked.
“If we let retailers do it, we are essentially saying everyone can do it,” said Schmidt. “Realtors could do it. Offices could do it. We’re basically surrendering our property. The idea was for a café look and feel. We did it for increased vibrancy. Gene Taylor’s in Gunnison isn’t necessarily vibrant.”
Williams suggested the town staff enforce the current rules on the books prohibiting private stores from utilizing public sidewalks to display their wares.
Williams also wanted to make sure private benches on Elk Avenue didn’t proliferate, considering the “aesthetics” of the National Historic District.
The rest of the council liked benches and chairs on the town right-of-way, whether they were public or private, and so no new action will be taken on that front.
The Elk Avenue discussion will continue in the future with a new Town Council and new staff recommendations.