‘Outdoor dining is part of the fabric of our city:’ Seattle council moves on free street use

Feb 2, 2022, 5:03 AM
Outdoor Dining Shelters Along Ballard Ave circa Dec. 2020 (credit Cindy Shebley via Flickr)
(credit Cindy Shebley via Flickr)

Seattle City Council has indicated that it will approve free street use licensing for outdoor cafes, restaurants, merchandising, and street festivals through January 2023.

While the ordinance did not reach a definitive vote, councilmembers — including the more conservative wing of the council — signaled their approval for the extension of the free permitting. Free permits for use of street space were opened up at the start of the pandemic to allow businesses the flexibility to adapt their models to work around restriction on indoor dining and gathering.

The extension was originally set to expire in May of this year. Before enacted, those permits would range from $300 to $4,000, depending on the size and scope of the business in question. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) reports that it has “seen a significant increase in operating volumes” as businesses leverage the temporary exemption, citing the issuance of 276 permits since the original ordinance was stamped in the summer of 2020.

The decision to extend the free permits is significant as it’s one of the few upsides of the pandemic, forcing the city’s hand to retexture urban spaces in Seattle, allowing more businesses to make use of street space with resulting “long term public health and resilience benefits,” SDOT representative Elise Nelson said in Tuesday’s council session.

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“We [need] to keep outdoor dining as a part of the fabric of our city, forever, or at least through my lifetime,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss, the ordinance’s author.

“We’ve always had sidewalk cafes, we’ve always had parklets as a tool in our urban space toolkit. I will say that [the permits] were oftentimes too small and oftentimes too expensive,” he continued. “The pandemic gave us the chance to look at how we operate this program again.”

“This is the kind of improvement that really brings that vibrancy and activation back to commercial corridors,” Councilmember Tammy Morales echoed. “And honestly, it’s a safety improvement to just have more people out and activating the street. We had the Columbia City patio during the late part of the pandemic, and I know folks are really eager to bring that back to Ferdinand Street and just be able to enjoy it.”

The ordinance considered would not extend free permits indefinitely. After January 2023, when the ordinance would expire, the council indicated that they plan to phase back in a fee structure.

Calvin W. Goings, director of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), indicated that the 276 permits cost the city roughly $420,000, or $630,000 when adjusted annually. The city has been able to leverage federal funds to subsidize the program — a reported $300,000 — but those dollars are largely tied to the COVID emergency response.

“I support the extension of the free permits,” Councilmember Alex Pedersen said. “[But] as it becomes less about COVID and more about a new program for the city, [there are] trade offs there.”

“I think the expectation is that there will be a new fee structure that’s attached to this,” Goings added. “We will have to understand … the expectation for [lost] parking revenues because that affects what we think we should be charging for parking spaces, and those have been changing over the last couple of years as well.”

The free street permitting extension until January of next year would be formally voted out of committee Feb. 15.

“Vendors have been really hard hit during the pandemic,” Elise added. “We’re looking to create new permit options for people to try out new sights more simply and affordably. And then looking at ways to try out new types of vending. With programs building off programs we piloted during the pandemic like Market Streets. For street activations, we want to continue to build upon what we’ve done during the pandemic — create more options for street closures and activations that will create great places for people to gather, dine, and shop.”

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‘Outdoor dining is part of the fabric of our city:’ Seattle council moves on free street use