A program originally established to help keep restaurants in downtown Vancouver alive through the pandemic has proved so popular that city leaders decided to extend it for another three years.
The Street Eats program, which grants permits for restaurants to use sidewalks and parking spaces for additional outdoor seating, would have expired on March 31. Instead it will continue even after COVID-19 is (knock on wood) a semi-distant memory.
The program was modeled after a similar one in Portland and received a “tremendous response” when it launched last spring, said Teresa Brum, Vancouver’s economic development division manager.
It was popular among patrons, who enjoyed the added safety of eating outdoors. But it proved even more crucial for the restaurants and their employees, whose staffing and hours had to fluctuate based on the evolving guidance from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.
“The restaurants liked it because it gave them some certainty throughout the pandemic as the levels were changing – they knew they’d always have outdoor seating,” Brum said.
Citywide, more than 60 restaurants have registered to appear on the Street Eats app online, which denotes to potential customers that they have outdoor seating. Another 14 restaurants downtown and uptown have permits for parklets, or quasi-permanent outdoor eating arrangements located in one, two or three parking spaces.
A table in an empty parking space seems a simple enough idea, Brum said, but implementing the program involved multiple agencies, from the city’s economic development and transportation departments to Vancouver Fire Department to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. It was a lift, she added, though slightly streamlined because Vancouver was able to apply valuable lessons from the model in Portland.
“Public spaces are highly regulated by cities. There’s a lot of things you can’t do in a public space,” Brum said. “To allow the parklets, we had to change the rules in so many different levels.”
That effort culminated in a report from the Urban Land Institute earlier this year titled “The Pandemic and the Public Realm.” The report listed Vancouver’s Street Eats pilot program as among the best strategies in the world for helping eateries weather COVID-19; Buenos Aires, Paris and Melbourne also made the list.
“Cities that were able to make that pivot really quickly and change the regulations and respond to the demands of the pandemic,” Brum said. “The real winner in the end is the restaurants. And they’re the ones that took the big risk.”
For The Grocery Cocktail & Social, an intimate downtown spot with a maximum capacity of just 50 (even outside of a global health crisis), the program was a lifeline.
The business’s owner, Chris “Salty” Reed, was able to use a grant to build a parklet structure just outside its entrance at 115 W. Seventh St. Combined with some additional sidewalk space, the Street Eats program essentially brought his seating back to full capacity. The restaurant can now seat 25 patrons inside and around 25 outside.
“The numbers are really looking almost normal again,” Reed said.
He plans to keep the outdoor space operational for the full three years, Reed added – he’ll have to.
“We need to have that out there after we get back to some sense of normalcy to be able to recoup the losses that we’ve had the entire time,” Reed said. “There might be the possibility of us gaining back what we lost, eventually, and I think three years will be a good timeline for that.”
Participation in the parklet program is free, though that perk won’t last the full three years – owners will eventually have to pay to rent the space, an expense equivalent to that of a monthly parking pass, Brum said. The timeline for phasing in that fee hasn’t yet been established.
Ryan Lopossa, Vancouver’s streets and transportation manager, knows that the pandemic means fewer people are driving and parking downtown. That’s true of both the people who would usually come downtown to recreate and the commuters who would usually come into work, he said.
What Lopossa is unsure of is exactly how big of an impact COVID-19 made on traffic downtown, and what transportation in the area will look like once the city fully recovers.
“We’re still noticing a fairly considerable decrease in the amount of on-street parking that’s occurring in the downtown and in the uptown,” Lopossa said. “We haven’t been able to do any hard and fast counts or surveys.”
Though parking downtown was at a premium during normal times, Lopossa said that the Street Eats program remains limited enough that it shouldn’t pose too big of a problem in a post-pandemic world.
The total number of parking spaces authorized for the parklet program are capped 50 total; right now, only 27 spaces are being permanently occupied by restaurant seating. That’s a tiny fraction of capacity downtown.
Even so, Lopossa said city leaders were reluctant to make the program permanent without first seeing how it impacted drivers and pedestrians outside of lockdown. Three years seemed like a good middle ground: it’s ideally long enough for restaurants to ride out COVID-19, recoup some of their losses and then hopefully stabilize.
There’s also a very distinct possibility that when three years are up the program will become permanent, he said.
“We’re trying to just allow the restaurants to have a number of different options,” Lopossa said. “A lot of them have made some pretty significant investments in their outdoor space.”