City council considers parking woes, “streateries”

Restaurants in the Oklahoma City metro area are warming up to the onstreet dining trend, but parking and public safety challenges must be solved to make it a reality in Norman.

The City Council, during a Tuesday study session, discussed those challenges and a contract with the Meating Place as a pilot project for the outdoor dining permit program.

Staff recommended that a permit be extended another six months to study the program during winter months. Council will vote on that contract during the next regular meeting, city attorney Kathryn Walker said.

Permits for on-street dining emerged in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic as a solution to social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the virus, Walker said.

Businesses are required to install barriers to block off the space to prevent traffic collisions with diners, but the expense prevented owners from obtaining a permit, the attorney said.

However, the city obtained a few free barriers from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to offset the cost of the streatery program, which has prompted renewed interest from restaurant owners, Walker said.

Some communities do not use concrete barriers but landscaping or large stones to block off streets. Ward 7 council member Stephen Holman was concerned that downtown one-way streets are less safe if concrete barriers are not used.

“Cars driving fast and switching lanes erratically on Main Street, we’ve all seen it and we’ve probably done it ourselves, so that’s why it’s necessary in my opinion,” he said.

Dining on the street means fewer parking spaces. A 2018 parking study found that while parking in downtown Norman is 46% occupied on weekdays, parking around Campus Corner is 72% occupied.

Holman also suggested eateries could share blocked off parking spaces. Councilor for Ward 6 Elizabeth Foreman speculated a parking garage would be necessary if population increases after the University of Oklahoma joins the Southeastern Athletic Conference.

Transit and Parking Coordinator Taylor Johnson reminded the council the parking study cited the need for a parking garage. It also cited private use of public parking lots.

Public Works Director Shawn O’Leary said the price tag on parking garages is up to $25 million.

“If you want us to pursue it we can do that, but it actually went before the Economic Development Advisory Board a year or so ago and it died out,” O’Leary noted. “I think the funding kept us from moving forward.”

A parking garage is included in the county’s masterplan for the courthouse in 2017. County commissioners planned to build it on Comanche Street north of the courthouse, but those plans have not been implemented.

Holman said the city has been “holding our breath” waiting to see what the “county will do with theirs.”

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