Out of necessity, restaurants adapt public spaces for outdoor seating. Will that spark a broader conversation for the future?

Billy Jack’s Shack adds new patio seating in parking lot next to restaurant for reopening.
(Photos by Tristan Lorei)

By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor

After expanding outdoor seating to the adjacent parking lot, Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint and Billy Jack’s Shack have hosted more guests outside while maintaining six-feet of distance between tables. And, in the process, it’s inspiring a wider conversation about reimagining public spaces in downtown Harrisonburg through the pandemic and beyond. 

“It’s been great, we’re able to do 23 seats at Billy Jacks’s, and 24 at Jack Brown’s,” said Aaron Ludwig, owner of both Jack Brown’s and Billy Jack’s. While both establishments were still available for takeout and delivery, he said it wasn’t easy trying to maintain the businesses without the usually busy dine-in customers.

Working with the city, the landlord of the parking lot, and the ABC store that shares that parking lot, Ludwig came up with the larger outdoor setting plan by Memorial Day weekend. 

“We could only have about nine people out there, so we came up with the idea to expand into the parking lot,” Ludwig said. “The city did a lot for us.” 

He said he appreciated how supportive the city staff was in making the solution work.  

Thanh Dang, assistant director of community development, said city staff received “inquiries from other restaurants and are providing them guidance for submitting the necessary documentation to receive City approval.” 

Jack Brown’s, Billy Jack’s and O’Neals Grill have been approved for temporary outdoor seating areas so far.  

A sign out front marks the seating for each restaurant. Billy Jack’s patio has white umbrellas and Jack Brown’s has red.

Temporary seating areas are only short-term solutions, however. The permits are not to exceed “180 days or the re-opening of indoor seating,” Dang told The Citizen in an email. The city has created a webpage to “provide guidance” for any restaurants who want to explore the possibility of temporary outdoor seating, Dang added.  

So far, the decision has been popular among locals, some of whom had suggested using parking lots and streets downtown to help other restaurants as well. 

“I think it’s a perfect time to reimagine using our streets and public spaces,” said Kyle Lawrence, leader of the Shenandoah Valley Bike Coalition. 

Harrisonburg is not alone. Businesses in the city of Norfolk, for instance, faced similar problems and also expanded outdoor seating into public places. This allows restaurants to host more customers at a time while still keeping appropriate space between tables. 

Charles Hendricks, owner of Gaines Group Architects and current candidate for the Harrisonburg City Council, had a similar idea. 

“I think it would work wherever there are parking spaces,” Hendricks said. “The city can support that by designating spaces to use.” 

Ludwig said the idea of closing part of a street for seating had been “shot down” for safety reasons. 

But Ludwig and Hendricks both suggested other public spaces could be repurposed as long as they offered proper safety precautions. 

“There has to be some sort of barrier system to protect you against cars,” Hendricks said. He said concrete barriers would be an easy solution and mentioned that local artists could paint them to brighten them up. 

Hendricks also mentioned the importance of accessibility. 

“We have to create a place to offer access to people of all abilities,” he said.  

Hendricks had previously worked on the Harrisonburg Parklet Project, which ran from 2012-2015. The project offered parking spaces to local artists as a space to showcase their work and for people to see the various types of art in the city. This gives Hendricks even more belief that we can innovate the use of public spaces during this time. 

Social distancing measures will have to be taken until there is a vaccine available, which could take 12-18 months, but that is another obstacle Ludwig is ready to take on. 

“We’re definitely trying to be as health-conscious and socially responsible as possible,” Ludwig said, acknowledging the importance of following safety guidelines. “We’re on a month-to-month lease with the landlord of the parking lot, so we’re going to try and keep it going as long as we can.” 

While parts of Virginia, including Harrisonburg, began Phase 1 of reopening May 15, many businesses are still struggling financially. 

Billy Jack’s Shack adds new patio seating in parking lot next to restaurant for reopening.

Hendricks said community members should not only support local businesses but also promote them, especially those that might have been closed between mid-March and May 15. 

“If there’s a business that you love, promoting it is very helpful,” said Hendricks “share that with your friends and let your community know.”  

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