Permanent Pergolas

Are Seattle’s Cafe Streets Here for Good?

A city council vote on Monday moved us one step closer.

By Benjamin Cassidy May 17, 2021

Pergolas aren't limited to Ballard Avenue: Oddfellows Cafe and Bar in Capitol Hill got a structural upgrade earlier this year. 

Nordic vibes are nothing new in Seattle, which celebrates Norwegian Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai, today. This year’s edition is a tamped-down festival. No marching band, no floats—just a procession of cars through Ballard. But those decorated rides roll through a neighborhood that has added another nod to Scandinavia since its last 17th of May parade. The pergolas that line Ballard Avenue announce the community's flourishing street dining scene, a staple of northern European life that has only recently been embraced here amid the coronavirus pandemic. With Covid-19 more apt to spread indoors, the city has allowed restaurants and other businesses to expand their operations to the streets for almost a year now. And it doesn't look like they'll be vacating roads anytime soon.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to extend its free street-use permitting to businesses through May 31, 2022. Introduced by council member Dan Strauss, the legislation also calls for a plan to keep street dining around much longer than that. Those details, including what the cost would be after next year, are forthcoming from Seattle's Department of Transportation. But it's clear that what started as yet another "pandemic pivot” (gag) has blossomed into a long-term revenue strategy for restaurants recovering from the economic crisis. "I think everyone's on board with trying to make it permanent," says Gordon Padelford, the executive director of nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and a prominent local backer of the cafe streets program. "It's just a question of how."

The city's temporary permits, which allow for additional seating on sidewalks, in curbside parking spaces, or a bit farther out on closed streets, were set to expire on October 31 before the extension. Businesses can now invest more in their outdoor setups and increase their capacities even as vaccinated diners warm to indoor tables again.

During a meeting last week of the council's Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, Strauss noted that 35 of 36 businesses surveyed on Ballard Avenue supported the legislation. Many more across Seattle signaled to council members that outdoor dining expansions had saved their businesses. The city has issued more than 200 street-use permits over the past year, and multiple restaurants have benefited from shared outdoor spaces like The Patio in Columbia City. “We can favor people and businesses that employ them and nourish them over the cars that would normally live in the street,” Optimism Brewing Company cofounder Gay Gilmore said during the virtual gathering.

Many experts on livable cities have long subscribed to that kind of thinking. Padelford expected the program to go well but has been "surprised at just how simple it's been." Locals have embraced dining alfresco even when it's chilly. "Nordic countries have always said that 'there's no bad weather, there's only bad clothing,'" he says. "I think folks have discovered that."

The bill now awaits mayor Jenny Durkan's signature. She is "very supportive," according to spokesperson Anthony Derrick.

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