Grand Rapids’ Restaurant Week to put social zones prominently on display

Restaurant Week, Friday Nov. 4 through Saturday Nov. 12, is a perfect time to explore Grand Rapids’ social zones. Participating restaurants will offer specialty menus and special prices as well as dessert and drink pairings.

The city of Grand Rapids has more dedicated social zones than any other city in Michigan. The nine dedicated social districts include 63 participating businesses in the Downtown, Creston, East Fulton, East Hills, Fourth & Stocking, Michigan Street, Wealthy Street, West Fulton and West Leonard neighborhoods. Two recently added social districts, East Fulton and East Hills, will allow even more businesses to take advantage of the increased pedestrian traffic these sites generate. The impetus for social zones was, of course, the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns.

“There was a time when restaurants and bars during the pandemic were at zero indoor occupancy. Many of them closed temporarily. And a few went out of business,” says Lou Canfield, chief of staff to the city manager, City of Grand Rapids. “We thought it was very important to do whatever we could, using the tools that were available, to help them survive. For a time, the social districts and the seating areas, which we termed social zones, were the primary option for them to continue.”

As restaurants and bars were allowed to have 25% indoor occupancy and then 50% occupancy, the social zones continued to bolster business. When city leaders looked at data on the social zones’ success in 2022, they decided to make them ongoing — despite a 50% drop in pedestrian traffic in key downtown areas during the pandemic, areas with social zones maintained roughly the same amount of pedestrian traffic as they had before the pandemic.

“At [at] least one location at Ionia Avenue and Oakes Street, pedestrian traffic more than doubled from its pre-pandemic levels,” Canfield says. “People really enjoy the atmosphere that is enabled by these social districts and zones, to be in an exciting part of the city, to be able to purchase a drink and carry it out into a public space.”

Designated by the city commission, Grand Rapids’ social zones are areas where foods and alcoholic beverages sold by qualified Michigan Liquor Control Commission licensees can be consumed by those who buy them there. Some social zones offer seating in the public right of way, the street’s parking lane or sidewalk, while others make use of city-owned property, parking lots or parks.

“I think one of the big learnings was this is a really great opportunity for us to test and expand how we can better activate public space for all different types of businesses,” says Josh Naramore, managing director parking services department, City of Grand Rapids. “It's really taught us about how to manage these types of installations.”

Naramore notes that the COVID experience of social zones has helped the city to tweak their placement so as not to cause disruptions in high-traffic areas, like Bridge Street. Social zones’ success has also persuaded city leaders to allow them year ‘round rather than the originally allowed April 1 through November 1.

“We always work with the neighborhood groups because we want these only to go in a place where they are generally desired,” Canfield says. “The business groups in East Fulton and East Hills came to us and said, ‘We would like to have these established preferably before winter.’ They're looking to have the same kind of vibrancy, energy and activity brought to their business corridors as we've seen downtown. I expect that they will bring the same kind of benefits there that we've seen elsewhere.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids

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