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Seattle restaurants granted one more year of permit-free outdoor dining

Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss at a Ballard Avenue press conference on Monday, standing in front of the outdoor dining pergolas that he'd like to be permanent throughout the city. (Photo courtesy of Dan Strauss' office)

Since June 2020, Seattle’s Ballard Avenue has experienced a metamorphosis. The historic street, lined with trendy restaurants, bars, and shops, is now one-way, narrowed into a single lane so shops and restaurants could build wooden pergolas on the street to create covered, outdoor dining and shopping areas.

“These pergolas and sidewalk cafes provide a moment of consistency for businesses to be able to operate in changing health conditions,” said Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss. “What was not clear is how long would these permits last. So, today, we’re here to say we want them here forever.”

Strauss’ legislation passed unanimously through Seattle’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee. That means the expensive permit fees will continue to be waived through May 2022, and they’ll be working on a “pathway to permanency” so restaurants and shops all over the city can keep their sidewalk and street cafes open in perpetuity. Since the inception of Washington’s Safe Start program, 233 permits were issued to businesses wanting to expand into outdoor spaces.

Max Genereaux owns four Seattle small businesses, including The Sunset Tavern and Hattie’s Hat on Ballard Avenue.

“Like many people, this was the most stressful year of my life,” Genereaux said. “I’ve got bags under my eyes and gray hair that I didn’t have a year ago. It was awful. PPP loans were great, but I’m $1.5 million in debt for my four businesses.”

Genereaux is grateful the city allowed small business owners to set up permanent structures, sans permit fees, that welcomed customers rain or shine, and allowed restaurants to stay open when indoor seating was banned.

“I started renting a tent for $1,000 a month with a very small customer base,” Genereaux said. “So when we got the opportunity to build the actual wooden pergolas, it came out really nice. As you can see, the community loves it, the customers really enjoy being able to walk down Ballard Avenue, next to all these beautiful old buildings, and sit outside and look at the beautiful buildings while they’re dining and drinking. That has helped me survive as a business owner.”

“It’s going to lead us to recovering because I’m by no means going to be out of debt on June 30th when we go back to normal business as usual,” he continued. “I have a lot of making up to do. If I can get back to having full capacity inside of Hattie’s as well as extra capacity outside of Hattie’s, those increased sales will help me do that. I’m counting on it.”

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Councilman Strauss acknowledges that business owners have spent thousands of dollars building the wooden pergolas when they were already in debt and unsure their restaurants and bars would survive.

“They need to have the certainty that the investments they make in these structures will be able to last enough time for them to have enough return on their investment,” Strauss said. “This summer will be the first full summer that we have street cafes, and I am so excited to see how our businesses use this opportunity to make our city more vibrant and exciting.”

The pilot program has been extended until May 2022, and will need to be revisited for another vote to make it permanent.

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