Creative Use of Street ROW During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has had many negative effects on our national and local economies. Restaurants, espresso/coffee shops, and other business establishments serving food and beverages have been hit hard, with many having to close and only a limited number being financially able to offer “pick-up/to-go” service. The next wave of Safe Start - Washington's Phased Reopening program means those food and beverage service establishments, (hereafter referred to as restaurants) can begin to provide some level of in-house service, subject to several conditions.
One challenge is that many restaurants, especially small ones, may not have enough interior space to easily meet the six-foot social distancing standard even when operating at only a 50% capacity level. If a restaurant could shift some of its tables onto the public right-of-way (ROW), however, it would be easier to follow social distancing guidelines and accommodate enough customers to make operations financially viable.
As a result, some local governments are considering allowing restaurants to extend their activities into the public ROW on a temporary basis. In a downtown context, the ROW usually consists of sidewalks, on-street parking spaces, and vehicular travel lanes, extending from the front of a building out to the street centerline. Of course, any new outdoor seating would be subject to the same coronavirus-related requirements as indoor seating.
Where Outdoor ROW Seating Is Currently Allowed
In Washington State, Langley, Spokane, and Vancouver are some of the cities that are either allowing restaurants to temporarily expand into the ROW or seriously considering that option, while our municipal neighbor to the south, Portland, already has such a program in place. Other U.S. cities, such as Cincinnati, Denver, and Tampa, have recently given businesses (including restaurants and, in some cases, retail goods display) the option to extend into adjacent sidewalks, streets, and parking lots.
Three Basic Approaches
There are three ways that the public ROW could be used by restaurants for outdoor seating: via sidewalks, on-street parking spaces, or the entirety of the ROW.
1. Use of sidewalks
This option would involve allowing seating for diners on a portion of a sidewalk, which would result in some practical difficulties and challenges. Providing safe pedestrian access within a business district while also maintaining a six-foot minimum distance between seated patrons and pedestrians (within a standard sidewalk’s width) makes it difficult to place dining tables on most sidewalks. Unless you are dealing with a very wide pedestrian way, this physical challenge is the primary reason why most communities are viewing the use of an on-street parking area within the ROW (i.e., using parklets) as a better option than putting tables within a portion of a sidewalk (see below).
2. Use of on-street parking spaces (parklets)
This approach of using on-street parking (be it parallel, diagonal, or straight-in) to create a public space is usually referred to as creating a “parklet,” although some communities distinguish the use of such space for outdoor eating as a “streatery,” blending the words “street” and “eatery”. This is not a new concept, with a few cities in Washington (and elsewhere in the U.S.) already allowing this type of use, such as Seattle and Spokane.
A temporary parklet in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy of Melendrez.
3. Use of the entire right-of-way
Some communities have limited vehicular access on one or two blocks of their downtown streets and only allow pedestrians and bicyclists to use them. Cincinnati has closed some of its streets, both partially and fully, and is allowing their use for street cafes. Closer to home, Coupeville will be temporarily closing off a section of Front Street to cars during June, 2020, to allow local restaurants and retail businesses to use a portion of it.
There is actually a fourth option to encourage outdoor dining: If there is private, off-street parking to the rear or side of a restaurant, some local governments are allowing a portion or all of those lots to be converted from parking to outdoor dining use.
Issues to be Considered
Before opening the ROW, local governments should carefully consider many issues, including access and how to communicate the new policy to residents and businesses.
Communicating program goals to the public
It will be important to talk to your local business community (including those businesses that would directly benefit from outdoor dining in the ROW, along with those who would not), key governmental staff, and the general public about what you are considering. Be sure to ask what may be needed, solicit ideas, and get everyone’s opinions.
Ensuring access for people with disabilities
It is important that the outdoor seating areas be made accessible to people with physical disabilities, as demonstrated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 2010 Standards for Accessible Design. For example, a parklet should be constructed so that it is flush with the sidewalk. If that is not possible, then an ADA-accessible ramp should be built to allow access to the parklet.
Allowing liquor licenses
Serving alcohol in these new public areas will require approval from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). Its Adding or Extending Outside Liquor Service webpage provides information about how businesses can apply to add or extend outside liquor service, and decisions on such requests are being expedited by the Board.
Minimizing barriers to program use
Local rules and procedures should make it very clear what is and is not required to participate in your program. In particular, be sure to clarify what spatial requirements will be applied to any outdoor dining areas (one idea would be to develop a one- or two-page summary sheet, with easy-to-understand graphics). Reducing or waiving the program’s application fees may be another step to consider.
How to Implement
You don’t necessarily have to “reinvent the wheel” to create an outdoor space in the public ROW for business use. Instead, a local government should consider using current processes if there are already existing permits and programs. Examples of such processes include temporary-use permits, temporary traffic permits, sidewalk cafe licensing, and an existing parklet/streatery program. If you want to create a new program or modify an existing one, you may need to take official action through an ordinance, resolution, or motion. Some cities have changed their standards, as seen in this general proclamation from the City of Langley or this City of Spokane Executive Order. I would recommend that you consult with your legal counsel on the best approach for your jurisdiction.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major disruption in our daily lives and local businesses, such as restaurants, have been particularly hard hit. Even with the lifting of state restrictions over the next few months, it may still be difficult for restaurants and similar businesses to operate in a financially viable manner. Most local governments have shown themselves to be flexible and open to new ideas during the pandemic. Allowing the ROW to be used for public seating by restaurants and retail businesses may be a new idea that is worthy of serious consideration.
At the national level:
- National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO): Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery webpage
- Portland (OR): Apply for a Healthy Businesses Permit webpage
- Denver (CO) Temporary Outdoor Expansions for Restaurants and Bars webpage.
- Route 55: Dining Out? Cities Allow Restaurants to Reopen with Seating in Streets, Parking Lots (May 8, 2020)
At the local level:
City of Spokane
- Executive Order re: City’s Restaurant and Retail Recovery Plan — See Section 4 on conditions for temporary permission to utilize city ROW
- An ordinance modifying requirements for sidewalk cafes, parklets and streateries
- A Guide for Expanded Restaurant + Retail Space webpage
City of Langley: General proclamation concerning temporary use of ROW
City of Bellingham: Temporary Right-of-Way Use Permits Guide
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.