The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to rethink the big stuff—jobs, relationships, the need for pants—but nothing more fundamental than how we use, and move through, the space around us. Urbanist wonks have long advocated for such attention, but it wasn’t until social distancing arrived in Seattle that the width of a sidewalk became top-of-mind for the masses. Our quarantined state even prompted the city to close more than 20 miles of streets to through-traffic, leaving the blacktop blissfully clear for bikers and pedestrians.
Now another change might be afoot. Even before King County announced that it would apply today to reopen outdoor dining during the state’s economic recovery, city officials and advocacy groups were considering an expansion of the city’s alfresco eating options via a relaxation of sidewalk cafe and “streatery” rules, similar to recent changes in San Francisco, Portland, and other cities across the country. Streateries? You know them—those somewhat endearing (if you’re a walker), somewhat intrusive (if you’re a driver) cafe seating areas that occupy a parking space or two on the street. In partnership with the city, restaurants began piloting them in the latter part of the last decade. Since then, you may have sampled Mamnoon’s falafel amid an industrial cove along Melrose Avenue or boozed beside East Olive Way in Montana’s rustic street stable.
Or, maybe you haven’t. Prohibitive costs (about $5,000 for one spot, pre-build), specific design requirements, and lengthy permitting processes have curbed widespread adoption and consideration of these dining addendums. But the city created these streatery rules during much better times for local restaurants. With in-house dining on lockdown until phase two of our pandemic recovery, and even then, at only 50-percent capacity, restaurants are desperately seeking any way to salvage some of their summer revenue while remaining safe for customers. “We're all kind of in the same boat, that things aren't working right now and that we need all of the relief that we can get,” says Arriba Cantina chef-owner Ryan Suddendorf.
By the time restaurants can fully reopen, emergency funds may be sapped. Patron psyches may still be smarting from perceptions, and a report, of poor ventilation systems spreading Covid-19. Simply put, it might be too late. So, in the short term, advocacy groups are merely asking the city to loosen up its regulations and let people dine outside, where the spread of Covid-19 is less likely. “We're proposing making it much easier and cheaper for businesses to implement streateries right now,” says Gordon Padelford, the executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
Padelford says multiple Seattle City Council members have had “very positive” responses to the idea and that mayor Jenny Durkan’s office was “taking lead on it.” The mayor's office confirmed Durkan’s interest. “Weeks ago, Mayor Durkan asked the Seattle Department of Transportation to evaluate how to open streets for usage in a way that protects public health and safety and complies with the governor’s Safe Start Washington timeline,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “Similar to farmers markets, we want to work with Public Health—Seattle & King County to ensure operations can continue safely with new hygiene, sanitation, and health measures in place.”
Fire lanes and accessibility concerns, of course, must be taken into consideration, and roadblocks unique to different business locations may prevent sweeping changes. But Padelford is optimistic the city will make at least some amendments to its street dining policies. “I think it'll definitely happen,” he says. “It's a question of how it will happen, how robust the implementation will be, how easy it will be for businesses.” Helping matters, the National Association of City Transportation Officials recently released guidance for devising such a plan. Think planter boxes or traffic cones separating dining zones from the rest of the road instead of structures that take weeks to construct.
City council member Dan Strauss backs the most potentially helpful version of outdoor dining expansion: cafe streets, à la Europe and cities across the U.S. Strauss told The Stranger that he’s been in touch with businesses on Ballard Avenue Northwest about a potential proposal. “We need to be ready to use our public space and public right-of-ways in a way that promotes our small businesses, protects public health, and increases the ability for pedestrians to use our public right-of-ways,” Strauss said. “And cafe streets are absolutely one of these options.”
The capacity boost from closed streets could be enormous, as could the psychological one; who doesn’t need a bit more time outdoors after months of quarantine? I spoke with Suddendorf on a balmy Thursday, when margaritas from his Ravenna cantina would seem extra apropos under the late-spring sun. A patio abuts the restaurant’s bar but only seats 12 under normal circumstances, six in phase two. Another 20 or so seats outside would be so significant, Suddendorf says. He’d settle for some sidewalk seating. “We'll take whatever we can get at this point, just as long as these decisions are made quickly, and we can start to act quickly.”