Urbana looking to expand outdoor dining options with 'Curbanas'
URBANA — Visitors to downtown Urbana this summer won't be cooped up inside if they don't want to be — city officials will be testing the water with a unique kind of outdoor seating that turns narrow sidewalks into outdoor cafes.
They're called "Curbanas."
Until now, there have been limited options for outdoor seating in downtown Urbana. The public alley immediately west of Crane Alley is open, and the bar has a few tables and chairs just outside, too.
But most businesses are bound by narrow sidewalks. City sidewalks need to maintain a minimum 4-foot travel lane to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and most in downtown Urbana are just too tight to accommodate both seating and a comfortable amount of space to travel.
The solution: Portable decking systems that are flush with the curb but extend into the metered parking spaces along Main Street. The decks — or Curbanas — will provide more room for outdoor seating without blocking the sidewalks.
"They represent a good opportunity to expand our outdoor seating options at less cost and less risk than permanent expansion of the sidewalk," said Urbana economic development specialist Kate Ferrer.
A pre-fabricated Curbana costs about $10,000 per parking space, but Ferrer said the city might be able to build them in-house for substantially less.
By comparison, a permanent concrete expansion of the sidewalk could cost about $20,000 per parking space.
City officials in Champaign have credited their outdoor cafe program as one tool that brought a visible vibrancy and active atmosphere to downtown Champaign over the past several years. Staff in Urbana hope the Curbanas are also a shot in the arm for their downtown area and offer space for things like street performances.
"This might provide more opportunity for businesses to work with musicians or other artists to provide that type of vibrancy and street life that is difficult to do now without the adequate sidewalk space," Ferrer said.
City officials plan to try them at two locations this summer and decide later if they want to extend the program permanently into the future.
The row of shops known as Cafeteria and Co. in the 200 block of West Main Street will be one of the beneficiaries of the pilot program. Pizza M owner Matt Kitzmiller said he's "hoping it will work."
"It's sort of a new project for Urbana," he said. "We're going to give it a shot."
The other location that will get a Curbana is Crane Alley. The bar at 115 W. Main St. has had outdoor seating for years, but general manager Aaron Wood said the bar has plenty of demand for more outdoor seating.
The Curbana will be some good exposure, too.
"It's more visibility in the front of our building," Wood said.
Wood is not as sure that it will bring more vibrancy to downtown Urbana, but he said it's a good step and shows city officials are being proactive to assist businesses in that area.
"It can't hurt," he said. "As far as it being a gigantic help, bringing more traffic to downtown Urbana, I think that's going to take a few more businesses opening up."
Some city council members had concerns about parking on Main Street when they discussed the pilot program last week. Each Curbana will be 6-feet-wide by 20- or 40-feet-long and occupy one or two parallel parking spots.
"There's been a lot of concern about adequate parking on Main Street by several different businesses in the past," said Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5.
City officials think the two locations are close enough to other parking opportunities, so blocking a space or two immediately out front will not be harmful.
Ferrer said that, in front of Crane Alley, the parallel parking spaces are occupied about 50 percent of the time. In front of Cafeteria and Co., it was about 30 percent of the time last year, but much of that time was before the building was renovated and new businesses opened.
"Based on previous records, we do know that those spaces are not completely occupied all the time," Ferrer said. "And of course, we also know that they're very close to the downtown parking deck, which provides much additional parking."
Wood is not concerned about parking — it'll only occupy two spaces in front of Crane Alley, and he's got the parking deck right next door.
Especially during the pilot program, city officials will have the final say about who does and does not get a Curbana. Alderman Mike Madigan, R-Ward 6, said administrators should be careful about that.
"I understand we want to foster this environment of collaboration, but you know, if the person paying the permit doesn't want to play, well, then the music shop or others may be cut out," Madigan said. "While I understand that the intentions here are good, I think in government we have to be careful about picking winners and losers."
What is a 'curbana'?
City arborist Mike Brunk can be thanked for coining the term "Curbana." In other towns, they're called "curb cafes" or "parklets."
A Curbana is a portable decking system that can be installed in a parallel-parking space. It will be flush to the curb, which extends the amount of space a business has for outdoor seating out front.
Fences or other features will separate it from the road, and they'll only be tried out this summer in locations where the speed limit is 30 mph and a bicycle lane provides a buffer.
Because they're portable, the Curbanas can be installed in April and removed in October, so customers can sit outside during the nice weather months but the decks won't occupy parking spaces when they are not being used in the winter.
San Francisco; Philadelphia; Seattle; New York City; Kansas City, Mo.; San Jose, Calif.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are among the cities that have tried them out recently "to great success," said Urbana economic development specialist Kate Ferrer.
This spring, you can add Urbana to that list.
"These are taking off in a number of communities," she said. "A lot of them are major metro areas, but increasingly we're seeing them in smaller communities around our size."
City officials will hold open houses this week at the Urbana Civic Center, 108 E. Water St., for those interested. Those will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 to 9:30 a.m. Friday.