Oregon cities embrace street seating to help restaurants reopen safely

From waiving permits to shutting down entire city blocks, leaders in Oregon are committed to getting their restaurants back on track


The Oregonian
By Michael Russell

By the end of spring, Oregon cities could look a bit more like Paris, Athens and Barcelona — and social distancing is to thank.

With restaurants and bars slowly reopening across the state, business owners and civic leaders from Portland to Ashland to Bend are teaming up to craft plans that will allow restaurants and bars to take their tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk, into nearby parking lots or even place them directly in the street.

An artist rendering of Northeast 28th Avenue without cars, one of two pedestrian plazas being pushed by the Portland Promenade Project's Zach Katz.
An artist rendering of Northeast 28th Avenue without cars, one of two pedestrian plazas being pushed by the Portland Promenade Project's Zach Katz.

Under Oregon’ Gov. Kate Brown’s Phase 1 reopening guidelines, restaurants are required to separate customers by at least six feet and eliminate any counter seating that doesn’t face a wall. For many restaurants in the 34 of 36 Oregon counties already testing the reopening waters, that means relaunching dine-in service with only a handful of tables. Add to that the diners who might not want to eat indoors in a room with strangers — a fear backed up by a Chinese study published by the CDC that showed the coronavirus spreading through a Guangzhou restaurant’s air conditioning — and you have a recipe for severely diminished revenue in an industry already flattened by COVID-19.

Two weeks ago, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission fast-tracked the application process for expanding alcohol service areas to sidewalks, streets and other common areas. And now some cities are following suit, dropping permit fees or otherwise clearing hurdles for restaurants, bars and other retail to take their business outdoors.

In Bend, businesses along the city’s main drag including Deschutes Brewery, Zydeco Kitchen & Cocktails and Brother Jon’s Alehouse put together a plan to take over the diagonal parking on Northwest Bond Street. And city leaders are cheering them on.

These businesses can’t wait,” said Bend Mayor Sally Russell (no relation). “They need to stay afloat. And we also know that customers are more comfortable in these outdoor venues, knowing that it reduces the risk of contracting the coronavirus.”

Bend doesn’t plan to stop at sidewalks. In an amended administrative order ratified by City Council on May 20, the city affirmed the right to “allow additional space on sidewalks” and “close all or portions of certain streets, alleys and parking lots" to allow “more space for outdoor dining.” Russell notes that the central Oregon city has shut down stretches of Northwest Minnesota and Oregon avenues for street festivals before, and will listen to similar proposals now, so long as that’s what businesses on those streets want.

“It’s so awesome,” Russell said. “There are all these creative ideas that are just blowing through the air right now.”

Ashland’s plan might be even more dramatic.

The picturesque southern Oregon city, still reeling from the early May cancellation of the remainder of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2020 season, plans to shut down a long stretch of Main Street to car traffic for eight consecutive weeks, stretching deep into the summer, according to Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. The move could allow restaurants along the busy street such as Plancha, Umami Sushi or Harvey’s Place (in the former Chateaulin) to expand their seating into the street.

The plan isn’t without its hurdles, starting with the fact that Ashland’s Main Street doubles as the south-bound half of Oregon 99, meaning the city will have to seek approval from the Oregon Department of Transportation before shutting the highway down. If granted, Lithia Way — the highway’s north-bound portion — will have to be temporarily turned into a two-way street, complete with people acting as signal operators at each big intersection.

Working in their favor: Ashland already shuts down this stretch of Oregon 99 three times a year, for Independence Day, Halloween and day-after-Thanksgiving festivities. Weekend closures of city-managed side streets such as the winding Winburn Way are also being considered.

“Over the past decade, we focused a lot on our culinary activities, restaurants and wineries, and we’ve really become a destination for that year-round,” Slattery said. “Now the town itself is the destination, and that’s a huge advantage for us going forward.”

Multnomah County is one of two remaining counties that have yet to enter Phase 1 (the other, Washington County, hopes to begin reopening June 1). But that hasn’t stopped Portland from setting the table for the future.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation plans to announce the next phase of its Safe Streets Initiative on Thursday, allowing business owners to apply for permits to offer food, drink or other services on public sidewalks, parking lots and even some streets, bureau spokesman John Brady confirmed to The Oregonian/OregonLive.com.

As first reported by Bike Portland last week, the initiative goes further than the city’s Street Seats program, which allowed some Portland restaurants to take over parking spots for outdoor seating. Local business owners will be able to file a no-fee application to take over sidewalk space to serve takeout or parking spots to add tables.

We are designing a permit process that will allow not just restaurants but bars, retail and personal service businesses to access the right of way,” said Margaux Weeke, Communication Director for Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.

And some Portlanders hope the city goes even further.

Zach Katz has dreamt of a car-free Southeast Belmont Street might look like since moving to Oregon in 2016. Now the self-titled “neighbor with a plan” sees an opportunity to get it done.

So far, Katz has started a Portland Promenade Project Facebook group, reached out to businesses and commissioned artist renderings of what pedestrian-only plazas might look like on Southeast Belmont Street near 33rd Avenue or 28th Avenue near Burnside Street. Katz said the businesses he’s spoken with — including Navarre, City State Diner and Stammtisch — have been nearly universally supportive of the plan, while the Kerns Neighborhood Association asked that the project launch as a weekend-only pilot.

“When the pandemic happened, I saw other cities were turning their plazas into seating areas,” said Katz, “and I thought, ‘Why not do the same thing in Portland?’”

(c)2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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