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Continued Use of the Public Right-of-Way for Outside Dining


May 12, 2022  by  Steve Butler
Category:  Streets and Sidewalks COVID-19

Continued Use of the Public Right-of-Way for Outside Dining

Photo credit: City of Vancouver

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, several communities quickly modified their development standards to allow portions of the public right-of-way (ROW) to be used on a temporary basis for outdoor dining and display of commercial goods. Those innovative areas are commonly referred to as either “parklets” or “streateries.” Some cities even allowed private parking lots to be converted for outdoor dining use.

The primary intent behind this flexible approach was to provide temporary relief to restaurants and retail shops that were facing a dramatic loss of business due to COVID-related indoor occupancy limitations (see my Creative Use of Street ROW During the COVID-19 Pandemic blog from June 2020). This concept proved to be popular with the general public, even during the cold winter months, but now that the pandemic appears to be winding down, many local governments are evaluating whether parklets and streateries should be allowed to continue operating within the public ROW.

This blog examines the key components of local parklet/streatery programs that were established during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and how Washington’s local governments are now evaluating the future of those programs. 

Background on Parklets/Streateries

What is meant by the term parklet? Olympia defines a parklet as a:

City parking space or parking spaces that the City has authorized through a permit to be used to create small park-like settings which are open to the general public and can include features such as tables and chairs, benches, planters and landscaping.

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Parklet in Vancouver, BC. Photo credit: Darby Gilligan

Some communities distinguish the specific use of such spaces for outdoor eating as a streatery, blending the words “street” and “eatery.” This is not a new concept, with a few cities in Washington (such as Seattle, which has permitted them since 2013) and elsewhere in the U.S. having already allowed this type of use before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Streatery in San Luis Obispo, CA. Photo credit: Justin Sharer

There are two basic ways that the public ROW is commonly used by restaurants for outdoor seating or by retail as display areas:

  1. the use of sidewalks (often referred to as a sidewalk café/display area); and
  2. the use of on-street parking spaces (usually referred to as outdoor dining parklets or streateries).

Additional options are when the sidewalk and on-street parking are used simultaneously or when an entire stretch of a street is temporarily closed and converted to non-traffic uses (similar to what traditionally occurs during neighborhood and seasonal celebrations).

Use of Sidewalks for Outdoor Dining

This option involves allowing seating for diners (or a retail display area) on a portion of a sidewalk, provided safe pedestrian access is maintained. Maintaining a five- to six-foot minimum distance between seated patrons and pedestrians within a standard sidewalk’s width makes it difficult to place dining tables on many sidewalks, however, unless the sidewalks are very wide.

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Outdoor dining in Seattle. Photo credit: Steve Butler

Use of On-Street Parking Spaces (Parklets and Streateries)

This approach calls for the use of on-street parking (be it parallel, diagonal, or straight-in) to create a semi-public space. Unless you are dealing with a very wide pedestrian way, as mentioned above, this physical challenge is a major reason why most communities with parklet programs view the use of on-street parking within the ROW as a better option than putting tables within a portion of a sidewalk.

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Outdoor dining and a streatery in Seattle. Photo credit: Steve Butler

Benefits of Parklets

While there are some drawbacks to parklets (such as a reduction in the number of on-street parking spaces), the benefits would appear to outweigh any downsides, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those benefits include: (a) providing expanded space/capacity for restaurants and other commercial operations; and (b) creating a lively and engaging environment for a community.

While parklets take up spaces that might otherwise be used for customer parking, the overall reduction in parking typically does not have a significant impact on nearby businesses. Instead, increased foot traffic caused by parklet patrons usually increases the number of potential customers walking by nearby commercial business establishments. In fact, some programs explicitly apply to outdoor retail display areas (such as Wenatchee’s program).

Safety and aesthetic concerns are also sometimes expressed.

Key Elements of a Parklet Program

There are a few key components to a parklet program that have been worked out over the past couple of years, including location, pedestrian access, safety concerns, aesthetics, permitting, and additional considerations.

Location

Most programs place some type of limit on the number of parklets and streateries. For example, the City of Wenatchee has the following limitations:

  • Only allowed within their Central Business District,
  • Only two are allowed per block,
  • Only one is permitted on each side of the street, and
  • Each is allowed a maximum of 40 linear feet, with requests for additional footage reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
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Streatery in Wenatchee. Photo credit: Stephen Neuenschwander

Under Vancouver’s (WA) “Street Eats” program “no more than fifty (50) total parking spaces in the downtown and uptown areas may be utilized for Street Eats installations at any given time, except…for special circumstances“ and the city limits the number of parking spaces to "no more than two (2) parallel parking spaces or three (3) angled parking spaces per block face” (again, with a 'special circumstances' provision). Additionally, the city states: “No permit application fees for Street Eats installations or annual renewals will be charged through March 31, 2022.“

Pedestrian access

It is also important that parklets be designed and located so as to not impede pedestrian access on sidewalks. Most programs (such as Wenatchee’s) require at least five feet of unimpeded access between the pedestrian way and any sidewalk/parklet dining areas. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-required accessibility to and from the parklet must also be provided.

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Bellingham streatery and sidewalk seating. Photo credit: Darby Gilligan

Design - Safety

Most parklets are required to have safe and visible separation between the outdoor seating area and the vehicular traffic. Fencing between the seating area and roadway, reflective delineators, and wheel stops (to protect parklets from adjacent vehicular parking spaces) are a few of the safety features in use by local programs.

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Highly visible streatery in Vancouver, WA. Photo credit: City of Vancouver

Design - Aesthetics

All/most local parklet standards address structural integrity but only a few address a parklet’s appearance. Given the initial rush during the early days of the pandemic, visual design standards were often not applied in parklet plans, leading some to criticize the homemade or “ramshackle” appearance of some structures. Miami Beach, FL and Santa Barbara, CA are two cities whose program guidelines provide detailed aesthetic standards while also addressing standard infrastructure requirements. 

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Streatery with interesting designs in Vancouver, WA. Photo credit: City of Vancouver

Local permits/fees

Permits for the use of the public ROW are usually granted for one calendar year with a renewal application and fee being required annually. However, many municipalities charged no or low fees during the pandemic as a reaction to the dire financial picture that businesses were facing. Currently, most local governments are now charging fees to cover the costs of processing the permit applications and for use of the public ROW. For example, Vancouver’s Street Eats program didn’t charge a fee for use of parking spaces during the early days of the pandemic but started charging a monthly fee on April 1, 2022, for each space occupied by the Street Eats/parklet installation.

A reminder that you should be charging leasehold excise tax for use of the public ROW (i.e., use of the sidewalk and/or on-street parking spaces), which may be most convenient to do by including it as part of the annual fee charged to a business owner. Requiring parklet vendors to pay an annual fee for a local business license is another common requirement.

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Streatery in Seattle. Photo credit: Steve Butler

Other applicable requirements

Parklet vendors, such as businesses and restaurants, are usually required to sign a “hold-harmless” agreement and provide proof of liability insurance. Restaurants must have a food handling safety permit from the county health department and, if serving liquor, are required to meet all pertinent Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board regulations. All of these issues are addressed by Wenatchee’s adopting ordinance.

Looking Ahead: Parklets in a Future Post-Pandemic World

Some local governments have found their parklet/streatery programs to be successful and are committed to keeping them going, albeit sometimes with some minor adjustments. Other communities are taking time to evaluate the benefits and potential drawbacks of their program before making a decision on whether to continue them.

Bellingham and Seattle are two cities moving “full steam ahead.” Bellingham currently has over 30 parklets and expects its program to continue into the future. Seattle’s longstanding and innovative program shows no signs of slowing down.

Most parklet and streatery programs, however, were set up as “pilot programs” with set sunset provisions/expiration dates. For example, the City of Walla Walla's streatery pilot program began in April 2021. It will run for three years, after which a final report will be presented to the city council in the winter of 2023-24. Vancouver’s “Street Eats” locations will be allowed as a pilot program through July 1, 2024. Ellensburg is allowing all currently permitted streateries to keep operating "until June 30, 2022, or such time as the effective date City Council may adopt an ordinance regulating ‘streateries’ on a permanent basis, whichever occurs first.” However, no new streateries will be allowed to operate in Ellensburg until the city adopts permanent program regulations.

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Streatery in Seattle. Photo credit: Steve Butler

Beyond parklets and streateries, some local governments are looking at how their regulations can also address food trucks, mobile vendors, and temporary “food pods” (the last of which is very popular in the Portland region but hasn’t caught on in most parts of Washington State). For example, Bellingham has specific food truck and mobile food vendors standards. Several commentators have pointed out that permissively regulating food trucks and mobile vendors will address some diversity, equity, and inclusion issues raised by focusing solely on outdoor dining and retail display spaces for owners of “bricks and mortar” businesses.

Conclusion

Parklets and streateries create a fun and inviting environment in downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. They proved to be an important element in helping many local restaurants survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in a post-pandemic world, these types of outdoor dining and retail display areas can play a positive role in making your pedestrian-oriented commercial areas and neighborhood districts inviting and attractive for people. Keep those thoughts in mind as you consider whether or not to allow them in your community.

MRSC is hosting the Post-Pandemic Planning: Using the Public R.O.W. for Outside Dining webinar on May 25 (12:00-1:00 pm), which will feature parklet programs from the cities of Bellingham and Wenatchee. I hope you will join us.

Other Resources


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.

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