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Dumpsters and garbage cans used to line the small back passage known as "trash alley" between brick buildings near Commercial Street in downtown Stillwater.

But since a cleanup by local business owners at the beginning of the pandemic, the space has been converted to outdoor dining tables and axe-throwing pits. And it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

The revitalization of Stillwater's Union Alley is a testament to the ingenuity of Twin Cities eateries that were forced to alter their dining establishments to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions. It also shows the willingness of some municipalities to try to cut through the red tape of city licensing and make compromises with its small businesses.

"Days like this, all the action is outside," said Sara Jespersen, who has led much of Union Alley's transformation, as she stood in the middle of the busy dining area early Thursday night. "I hate to say COVID was an opportunity, but it turned into it."

Jespersen opened her axe-throwing bar the Lumberjack in December 2019, only a few months before it and other businesses were forced to close as COVID-19 spread in the spring of 2020. When restaurants were allowed to reopen later in the summer, they were only able to have diners outside, according to state rules.

But the problem was that the Lumberjack didn't have a patio.

So Jespersen cast her eye to the smelly alley outside her back door.

"No one would ever walk through it," said Jespersen, of the alley she said was known as "the armpit of Stillwater."

The makeover of an area once known as “trash alley” in Stillwater happened early in the pandemic. Restaurant owners said it gave them hope for a comeback.
The makeover of an area once known as “trash alley” in Stillwater happened early in the pandemic. Restaurant owners said it gave them hope for a comeback.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Jespersen had already considered the potential of the alley. Right before the pandemic, Jespersen approached several businesses that used the alley to store their trash. As part of a mutual agreement, the group consolidated their 50 or so garbage receptacles in and around the alley to three dumpsters and a recycling container, which allowed for a better use of space.

In June 2020, neighboring business owner Joe Ehlenz of Lolito Cantina helped with the process to clean up, deodorize and power-wash the alley. Jespersen hung lights between the buildings. A $5,000 donation from a local family helped Jespersen build two axe-throwing pits and set up tables that could be used by both restaurants.

"Having that alley available … it created a momentum that made me feel so hopeful that we could do this," Jespersen said.

Ehlenz said Union Alley was a godsend during the height of the pandemic, and now it's icing on the cake as sales have recovered and Lolito is close to generating pre-pandemic numbers.

"I think it's a real cool space that's a lot better than it was," he said.

In 2020, after Gov. Tim Walz made changes to allow outdoor dining in June, many local cities issued executive orders that relaxed rules so portions of streets and parking areas could be used for patios.

After the governor's peacetime emergency ended last summer, some cities began to tighten outdoor dining rules again. But some took a hybrid approach to allow particular patios.

This past February, the Stillwater City Council indicated it wanted to discontinue the city's temporary allowance for outdoor seating in public spaces, but city officials in April agreed to approve an encroachment agreement as a pilot project to allow the Union Alley patio to continue. The City Council was favorable because the alley is not a full public street and there wouldn't be a loss in parking because the alley had been an unused, blighted area.

"Most of us know how terrible that alley was before," Mayor Ted Kozlowski said at the City Council meeting.

Union Alley is adding new energy as visitors flock to the city for outdoor activities, such as riverboat rides and Lumberjack Days, which will return in July after a two-year hiatus, said Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce.

"It's pretty amazing how busy it is," Anthony said.

Across the metro area, other patios that sprung up in the pandemic are also being allowed to stay.

When St. Paul's emergency declaration expired in April and ended the mayor's temporary allowance for outdoor seating permits and licenses, Urban Growler co-owner Jill Pavlak frantically e-mailed city staff to try to save her brewery's extended patio, which increases her taproom's capacity by a third. Within a week, Urban Growler got the approvals it needed.

"What we are seeing is people want to still be outside. … The virus is still with us and there's various comfort levels," Pavlak said. "When it is warm, people are outside more than in."

Brian Ingram, co-owner of Hope Breakfast Bar on the edge of downtown St. Paul, hopes his restaurant will also get city approval to keep its patio space, though his situation is a bit more complicated.

During the pandemic, the short span of Leech Street that runs between Grand Avenue and 7th Street between Hope Breakfast Bar and Cafe Astoria was blocked off to cars to allow for an outdoor eating area.

Ingram has asked the city to abandon the street and offered to pay to turn it into private property. If an agreement is reached, it would add seating capacity for an additional 75 people to the 100 that can already be served inside the restaurant.

"When COVID came, [the patio] became a lifeline," Ingram said. "If we wouldn't have had that, Hope wouldn't exist today."

In the future, Ingram said he wants to add trees and possibly a seasonal ice rink. "We are hopeful that we can set a precedent," he said.

St. Paul officials say they are working with businesses that wish to extend their service areas on a case-by-case basis.

Sarah and Tyler DePaulis played chess on the extended patio in Stillwater.
Sarah and Tyler DePaulis played chess on the extended patio in Stillwater.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Minneapolis, which is still operating under an emergency regulation, still allows loose zoning and business licensing regulations for outdoor spaces. City staffers discussed extending allowances beyond the emergency expiration, but the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances would need to be amended.

"We are still early in the exploration process with internal departments and outside agencies to see if there would be a viable pathway to continue outdoor expansions into the future," Minneapolis spokesman John Louis said.

In Edina, the city has allowed restaurants along its 50th and France business district to generally keep their slightly extended patios, though they still need permits.

"We didn't see any reason to go backwards and overly complicate a process that is working well," said Bill Neuendorf, Edina's economic development manager.

In St. Cloud, the city has continued to allow the patios along 5th Avenue for the time being as it tries to re-energize its downtown.

For Union Alley in Stillwater, Jespersen plans to raise money to commission mobile art murals and chalk art as part of an "Art Alley" concept.

"It is going to continue to evolve, instead of being an armpit, into a vibrant space," she said.