Hey, urbanists: Just in time for summer, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is looking at ways improve and activate the city's public rights-of-way, including sidewalks, parking spaces, and plazas.
You can check out their very ambitious list of proposals (which ranges from increasing the number of play areas in city right-of-way, on a median, for example, to expanding food vending and sidewalk cafes, to making it easier for neighborhood groups to shut down streets for community events), but here are a few highlights of the plan, which SDOT will present to the city council next Monday morning:
• Ads on benches. The city's proposal would require a code-change to allow "off-premise advertising" (that is, ads for a product or service that's available somewhere other than where the ad is located). Currently, bench advertising is prohibited under a law banning most "off-premises" ads (that is, ads for things that aren't available where they're advertised), which includes ads on benches; opening up the rules to allow bench ads could present a potential slippery slope toward legal off-premise advertising elsewhere.
The tradeoff: Ugly ads vs. new benches.
• Allowing people to sell things other than flowers and food on city sidewalks. The current rule, which strictly limits street vending, "hearkens back to a time when people were peddling things all over the place," says Jennifer Wieland, who manages SDOT's public space program—referring to a bygone era when Seattle streets were full of vendors hawking their wares.
Allowing people to peddle incense, silver jewelry, and macramé on the sidewalk, however, will take another change to the city's municipal code.
• Cracking down on things like roving A-frame signs and graffiti-covered newspaper boxes. Wieland says that although SDOT is "not proposing to outlaw them entirely," they do have a problem with signs that business owners place in the middle of the sidewalk, obstructing pedestrian access (and making it hard for blind people, in particular, to navigate the sidewalk).
As for newspaper boxes, Wieland says SDOT is looking for new rules to govern where they can go and how they should be maintained; currently, publishers are responsible for making sure their boxes aren't trashed or covered with graffiti, but it's unclear how well that rule is being enforced.
• New regulations on buskers. Wieland says SDOT gets "a lot of complaints" about buskers who block the sidewalk or have amplifiers, so they want to figure out a way to regulate on-street performances. One possibility is the creation of busker zones, where "they aren't going to impact mobility"; another is requiring buskers to get permits, a la New York City. (Currently, buskers aren't required to get permits).
• Creating more mini-parks. Semi-permanent mini-parks, which SDOT is calling "parklets," in on-street parking spaces. The parklets would be funded (or "sponsored") by local businesses, and could be renewed on an annual basis.
It's hard to predict whether parking warriors will be as outraged by converting parking spaces to parks as they were when SDOT converted a few parking spaces to bike lanes, but a similar program in San Francisco has, by all accounts, been extremely successful.
• Streamlining the permitting process for things like sidewalk benches, tables, and flowerpots. Currently, Wieland says, "If you’re a small business owner and you have planters, a sign, a bench, and tables and chairs, you’re going to have an annual permit for each of those four things and they won’t necessarily renew at the same time." The new proposal would consolidate all those permits into one. Which raises a question: If a business is only paying for one permit ($146 for the first time, $140 to renew) instead of four or five, doesn't SDOT lose out?
Wieland says SDOT doens't know yet just what the impact of the streamlining proposal will be, except that it will free up the department's five inspectors to inspect and enforce other permits. She says the department expects to save administrative costs (for things like going after scofflaws), but says SDOT may have to revisit its permit fees to balance out the potential loss.
You might be wondering about uses that have boomed in recent years, like food trucks and sidewalk cafes. Expanding the number of cafes and food trucks is definitely on SDOT's radar, Wieland says, but given the success they've already seen after relaxing permitting requirements—32 percent more sidewalk cafes, and 67 spots for mobile food vendors where there were none before—cafes and trucks are taking a back burner to new initiatives like building parklets and expanding the number of street benches in the city.