Grand Rapids’ outdoor dining ‘social zones’: Are they working?

Grand Rapids

A 2020 photo shows the “Social Zone” created on Bridge Street near Summer Avenue NW in Grand Rapids. (Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. via Twitter)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Fewer people are filling the sidewalks of downtown Grand Rapids during the COVID-19 pandemic, but spaces designed for outdoor dining may be helping to change that.

The number of pedestrians circulating through downtown in August was down roughly 48% from the same time last year, according to data shared with Grand Rapids’ Downtown Development Authority on Sept. 9. In June, July and August, Rosa Parks Circle welcomed roughly half the number of visitors it had during the same period last year.

However, pedestrian counts were higher than the year prior near at least two social zones: Bridge Street and Summer Avenue NW, as well as Ionia Avenue and Oakes Street SW.

In fact, pedestrian traffic in the area of Ionia and Oakes more than doubled this summer when compared to June, July and August of 2019, according to count data from Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

While year-over-year pedestrian counts were lower in June and July for the Bridge and Summer area, the corridor saw a spike in August 2020 that eclipsed August 2019.

The data looks like a promising reflection on the success of the city’s outdoor dining social zones, but there may be other factors. Studio Park’s cinema opened to downtown visitors a month after the August 2019 pedestrian count and Bridge Street has welcomed more construction crews and businesses in the last year, including Morning Belle brunch bistro.

DGRI has created approximately 13 social zones around downtown, most of which were set up in mid-June, according to DGRI spokesman Andy Guy. That’s in addition to several spots of expanded sidewalk seating for restaurants including Cottage Bar, Osteria Rossa and 40 Pearl.

In July, downtown Grand Rapids added “refreshment areas” where patrons can enjoy alcoholic drinks from designated businesses outside.

Guy says the pedestrian data was gathered using sensors from Eco-Counter. The sensors are located in boxes mounted throughout downtown. The devices count passersby as they break the “beam” emitted by the sensor, according to Guy.

DGRI is compiling more data about how the social zones it oversees have performed this summer, which the group plans to share with the DDA soon. Additionally, the organization is measuring social zone sentiments with an online survey for residents.

The DGRI social zone initiative runs through November, but Guy says discussions have started about extending the program to help businesses hurting from the pandemic. DGRI is also “exploring strategies” to winterize the spaces, as well as possible improvements to each space in spring, Guy says.


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