Clark County is still firmly in Phase 1 of Washington’s gradual reopening plan, but local officials have begun to brainstorm ideas for how to handle Phase 2, which will include a partial reopening of restaurant dining spaces.
One option under consideration: Parklets, an urban planning concept in which street parking spaces in front of restaurants are turned into semi-permanent outdoor seating areas. Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle floated the idea in a Facebook post on Monday, asking users to weigh in.
Some parklets can include fairly elaborate features like custom-built wooden tables, fencing and planter boxes, but the structures are still designed to be relatively easy to remove, and the underlying pavement is left intact.
Parklets have become an increasingly common sight in several cities including Portland, which began allowing restaurants to apply for them in 2012 under a program called Street Seats.
McEnerny-Ogle said the idea for parklets in Vancouver arose from a recent discussion that the city held with the local restaurant community, in which several restaurateurs asked about the possibility of adding parklets or even closing a side street to create more seating.
Gov. Jay Inslee ordered restaurants statewide to close their dining rooms and switch to takeout or delivery-only service in mid-March as part of a statewide stay-at-home order to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The four-phase reopening plan announced last week will gradually lift those restrictions, with a minimum of three weeks between phases to gather data on infection rates. Eight rural counties have received variances to go to Phase 2, but the rest of the state, including Clark County, is still in Phase 1.
Phase 2 allows restaurants, bars and taverns to resume seated dining operations, but they have to stay below 50 percent of their usual capacity, and bar seating will remain prohibited. That’s a tough proposition for restaurants, many of which rely on full dining halls to make their costs pencil out.
“Fifty percent is very difficult,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “It was (already) difficult when they had 100 percent.”
The parklet concept was discussed as a way for restaurants to expand seating capacity while maintaining a minimum 6-foot distance between tables.
McEnerny-Ogle said she made the Facebook post to gauge public interest in the concept, and based on the positive replies, she plans to bring up the idea at Monday’s city council meeting. If the council is receptive, she said, it would then be up to city staff to look at parklet policies in other jurisdictions and craft a policy proposal for Vancouver to consider.
A parklet project would likely raise questions about parking availability, since every added parklet would come at the cost of at least one parking space. Recent years have seen the city grappling with frequent complaints about a lack of adequate downtown parking, and McEnerny-Ogle was quick to acknowledge the concern.
“We know how serious parking is, so taking away a parking spot is not an easy task,” she said on Tuesday, “but we thought ‘let’s at least start the conversation and see what comes.’ ”
Street parking use has declined during the pandemic, she said, so the goal would be to help restaurants by temporarily taking advantage of that extra space. She said she envisioned the program as applying throughout the city, with some of the parklets in east Vancouver potentially located in parking lots rather than street parking lanes.
McEnerny-Ogle didn’t rule out the idea of keeping the parklets in place permanently, but she said she intended to propose the idea as a short-term solution during the coming summer months. Rainy weather and a returning demand for parking spaces might make the program impractical in the fall, she added.
“We could get several good months out of it,” she said.
Leah Jackson, owner of Niche Wine Bar on Main Street, expressed support for the concept. Niche has a small sidewalk area that can be used for outdoor seating, but it can only fit one table under the social distancing rules, she said. With a parklet, she could potentially add as many as three more.
Jackson said she hopes parklets could become a permanent feature for Vancouver. The downtown parking problem stems from a lack of walkability rather than a lack of actual parking spaces, she said, and the parklets would help with that.
Pat Dulin, owner of Dulin’s Cafe in Uptown Village, also said he supported the idea, although in his case the sidewalk outside the cafe already extends into the parking lane. Still, he said, more outdoor seating options in general will help out restaurateurs who would otherwise be stuck with half-full dining rooms.
“I wouldn’t be able to generate enough income to support what I do,” he said. “The extra tables outside would definitely help me get closer to that.”
Jackson and Dulin both cautioned that any parklets would have to grapple with concerns about traffic. Since they would be right next to passing cars, their success would depend in part on whether customers feel safe.
“It’s always about the consumer,” Dulin said.