Café Streets

Café Streets in Seattle have proven their popularity through this pandemic – even with our region’s unpredictable weather. Currently, we are on the pathway to permanency, and plans to regulate the Café Street program are being formalized. Businesses need certainty and flexibility, and we are keeping this in mind as plans are being formed. The success of this project comes from local business owners utilizing their entrepreneurial spirit and then streamlining government, so the bureaucratic process doesn’t slow business owners down. 

At the beginning of the Pandemic, Kelly Blake from Ballard Windermere sent me the idea of establishing café streets in Seattle to help small businesses survive and to give people more opportunities to connect with each other (safely) outdoors. Seattle has always permitted the use of sidewalks and parking spaces for restaurant spaces, but the high costs and lack of space were a barrier for many small businesses. We weren’t giving businesses the space to use their entrepreneurial spirit, and the costs were incredibly high. 

More than just dining – What is included in the pathway to permanency? 

There can be confusion surrounding the types of permits that add vibrancy to our neighborhoods, and how permits vary from retail to restaurant. Currently, there are six different types of safe start permits that a business owner could apply for, and the most common we are discussing today is the Outdoor Café Permit. Other permits include the Outdoor Merchandise Displays which is common for retailers, if they want to display merchandise outside to draw shoppers in, or if they are having a sale and need more space to display inventory. The Vending Permits are used if a business owner wants to put a vending machine outside of their retail, restaurant, or office space.  Outdoor Fitness on the Sidewalk, Curb Space, or Street is typically used by gyms or fitness centers so that people have space to safely exercise outdoors.  Street Closures are used to close a street and are typically used for events, fairs, farmers’ markets, and construction as well. Priority Pick Up Zones are designated spaces that delivery drivers, food pickup drivers or anyone who is quickly picking up food or goods from a restaurant or retail space.  

As you can see, there are many different permits a business owner could apply for, but they are tailored to meet a specific business’s needs.  For more information, visit SDOT’s website.  

In the last 20 months since implementing the café street permit program, outdoor dining and retail spaces have increased from 400 to 700 locations.  

During the pandemic, many people wanted to find space to engage with friends and neighbors while supporting local businesses. Many people weren’t comfortable dining or even shopping inside, so the need to create outside spaces for businesses become clear. Café streets have also created a vibrancy in our neighborhoods and have been a bright spot during a critical time when many businesses were closing their doors due to the uncertainty.  

Prior to the pandemic, the City of Seattle would typically charge a business the amount of money that a parking spot would generate, which means it came at a very high cost. As I mentioned earlier the size of space we permitted was so small, that business owners didn’t have the chance to be creative and use their entrepreneurial spirit. If they were able to secure a permit, the space they had typically couldn’t be any bigger than a city sidewalk. A restaurant, for example, would only be able to add a few tables and chairs and it’s hard to say if those tables would generate enough revenue to pay for the permit, let alone make a profit. 

The Pathway from Idea to Permanent 

I lobbied SDOT to get the program rolling by Memorial Day of 2020. While SDOT couldn’t authorize café street permits until August 2020, I was ecstatic when the permits hit the streets. SDOT also provided businesses on Ballard Avenue with greater flexibility for their outdoor dining and retail spaces.  

The program ultimately opened in August 2020 and was a wild success from the beginning. The August 2020 start date meant that we missed the warmer summer months, but we did have the opportunity to test out the Café Streets through the fall and winter. Still, businesses needed predictability and certainty to be able to make investments in a café street. Businesses that built structures were told that this was a temporary move, meaning business owners did not invest in structures that truly meet their needs – rather they invested in a temporary measure. Businesses needed their structures to be warm in cold weather and then provide shade and respite to outdoor diners in the summer months.  

Initially, SDOT focused on getting permits out the door rather than finalizing permanent regulations. This was a smart move, as it supported the immediate needs of local businesses. This decision – which I support – means the pathway to permanency takes a longer time AND more businesses were served faster.  

After a year of temporary permits, SDOT needed more time to finalize regulations, and local businesses needed certainty. In May 2021, we updated the permits for another year to give businesses the confidence to continue the program, and then in February 2022 we offered another short-term permit update, with the plan that more permanent regulations will be forthcoming. If they need more time to figure out the permanent plans, we will give it to them. Street dining in Seattle is here to stay- permanently- and we will take the time to get it right so that local businesses are supported. 

Ballard Avenue 

We first started with Ballard Avenue as the pilot for the rest of the city because Ballard Avenue is not a through street – the south end of the street is blocked by the Ballard Bridge and the north end is blocked by Market Street. While SDOT couldn’t permit the Café Street until August of 2020, they provided additional flexibility when it came to pergola design. Ballard Avenue was able to build bigger pergolas than other streets in the city and was self-directed with consistent design parameters. Ballard Ave quickly became a citywide pilot for Café Streets across the city.  

“The reason the pergolas in Ballard all have a similar feel and look is because of Tommy Patrick, owner of The Cut, Parrish NW and Bunsoy, created the design, then shared it with neighbors and helped them build it. He did this with the help of his business partner, John Slagle, and Alex Schenkar, a regular from one of Patrick’s restaurants, who happens to be an architect. The designs were shared with other business owners free of cost, with the one caveat that they would pass them along to other business owners if asked. This is the truest to form version of using one’s entrepreneurial spirit, combined with community building,” says Councilmember Dan Strauss.  

Ballard Ave has really come to life with the addition of the Café Street, but there are other areas in Seattle that have been enjoying them as well. 9th Ave in South Lake Union, as well as of Occidental Ave S between S Main and S Jackson in Pioneer Square has enjoyed successful Café Streets that added vibrancy to their neighborhoods. Some that we had during the pandemic, but that is not any longer, include Eden Hill Provisions (W Crockett, Queen Anne), 11th Ave between Pike and Union, and The Patio off Rainier in Columbia City. 

Design Charette Pathway Forward  

In July 2021, I hosted the first of three design charettes to take community ideas and put them on paper. The ability for folks at SiteWorkshop to take a thought and draw it in real-time is incredible – it allowed for robust dreaming of what Ballard Avenue could be and how we would get there. In this first design charrette, we dreamt big – could we have a street dedicated to commerce and vibrancy? The answer was a wholehearted yes! Then we had to work backward to understand what steps needed to take place. We divided the work into three big steps: short-term, interim, and permanent work on Ballard Avenue.  

The pathway to permanency is underway – a design charette led by SDOT is currently in progress. There are three focuses during the design charrettes Café Streets: short-term improvements, interim standards, and permanent standards. Short-term improvements (or easily identifiable quick wins) are currently being implemented and, once these improvements are made, I will host another design charrette focused on permanent design standards of pergolas. 

This upcoming design charrette will seek to inform SDOT about what in the short term was good, what was bad, how to change the bad aspects, and how to expand on the good aspects. Between the short-term and permanent periods will be the interim period. The interim will be the period where new standards are required, and businesses that built structures before these standards were created will have the time they need to comply with new requirements. We anticipate that this interim period will likely be two years. Once this permanent design is finalized, it will inform the permanent city-wide regulations. 

Our next step is to implement the interim changes and host the next design charrette. The next Design charrette will reflect on the benefit and drawbacks of the interim changes, and to look forward by creating standards for pergolas and structures specifically focusing on the structural integrity and aesthetics.