Why Milwaukee Businesses Might Be Taking to the Streets, Literally

A new pilot program will expand outdoor seating options for area businesses.

Milwaukee restaurants and bars struggling with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could benefit from a pilot program that has won city approval.

The Active Streets for Businesses program will provide expanded outdoor seating options by suspending certain code and permit requirements, and the waiving of an application fee, so that businesses can seek fast-track city approval to use sidewalks, parking lanes and the public right-of-way for seating. 

The Milwaukee Common Council adopted a resolution approving the program on Tuesday.

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“We think this is a great tool for businesses throughout the city,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

The program is similar to initiatives launched in other cities, Barrett noted. 

“We know there is a lot of interest in the program,” he said. “We want people to be safe and healthy and we want our businesses to be able to get back to as close to normal as they can.”

The program already is drawing interest from businesses on Downer Avenue, Old World Third Street, Broadway Avenue in the Third Ward, Kinnickinnic Avenue and Brady Street, according to Barrett. 

“I anticipate even more areas will show interest. We want this to be something that businesses throughout the city of Milwaukee will benefit from,” Barrett said.

Guidelines and an application can be found at Milwaukee.gov/DPW

All outdoor dining areas would need to comply with state and local health requirements aimed at slowing or preventing the transmission of COVID-19. The spread of the coronavirus forced bars in the city to close their doors in mid-March and restaurants to limit their business to carry-out or curbside pickup only. 

The city permitted bars and restaurants to re-open for drink-in and dine-in service on June 5 at 25 percent capacity.  

“Having more outdoor opportunities will be safer for patrons this summer and help re-stimulate the economy,” said Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, who sponsored the legislation. 

Restaurants and bars applying for the program must be located on streets where the speed limit is 25 mph or less. 

“If you are on a busy street, it’s not conducive to having people in the street or on the sidewalk,” Barrett said. 

To be eligible, applicants must:

  • Hold a valid certificate of occupancy and food dealer license for restaurant operations adjacent to the area proposed for outdoor dining
  • Complete the city’s online application
  • Attach a site plan to the application with the proposed layout of the outdoor street dining area
  • Obtain required city or state liquor license approvals (if serving alcohol in the outdoor street dining area)

Applicants will be responsible for obtaining and installing required traffic barriers as well as implementing their site plan. Tables and chairs must be removable and not restrict pedestrian flow in and out of neighboring building. 

Beth Weirick, CEO of the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District, applauded the city for “coming up with an innovative solution in support of local businesses.”

The pilot program will end Nov. 15.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.