Outdoor seating has become a sort of survival mechanism for restaurants in Seattle and across the country. In order to meet state and local occupancy limits imposed because of COVID-19, and to ensure at least six feet separation between tables as part of King County phase two reopening, many jurisdictions in the Puget Sound are allowing restaurants to temporarily occupy sidewalks and alleys as dining space, if they obtain street-use permits. While this solution is effective during the summer, restaurants need a permanent year-round solution to remain open, outdoors. A solution: Covered ‘parklets.’
A parklet is a small seating area or green space created as a public amenity, often on or alongside a sidewalk. Parklets, while typically a popular summer feature in densely populated areas, can be adapted for usage in inclement weather. Some may argue that parklets associated with restaurants are just an extension of the restaurant and not truly a public benefit, but the economic benefits can affect the city. By adapting their usability for year-round, parklets help create and sustain jobs in one of the hardest-hit industries, and they generate tax revenue.
What’s been seen recently is restaurant dining space spilling onto sidewalks and into streets and alleys because minimal design requirements have to be met to do this. As long as there is a pedestrian pathway and Americans with Disabilities Act accessible clearances, along with an adherence to Washington State Liquor Board license requirements — just to name a few — restaurant seating can venture outside. In the past, to expand into street dining, restaurants have faced high costs, design standards that can tack on additional expenses from the need to hire outside help, and arduous permitting processes. While most cities have necessarily streamlined the permitting process for these temporary outdoor dining facilities during the pandemic, this route is dependent on weather.
As the city of Seattle, along with other suburban cities, have long looked to reduce vehicular traffic through specific corridors within the downtown core and outlying neighborhoods to provide safer pedestrian routes, design elements such as bike lanes, wider sidewalks and unique, low-impact design storm water features have all been attributed to fostering a vibrant pedestrian experience and creating more functional open space. Parklets perfectly fit into this focus of designing inviting outdoor spaces for the community. Many cities are looking to encourage more pedestrian activity through thoughtful upzoning and floor-area ratio (FAR) bonuses, which allow developers to build more square footage in exchange for active/usable open space amenities. Parklets can be a viable answer to these zoning concerns, solving these needs and the new ones discovered through the pandemic.
Cities must work with designers to identify and work through specific criteria for parklet locations, such as parking restrictions, driveway and intersection spacing, public utilities and traffic/safety conflicts. Doing this work together allows for a more effective and productive approach, while meeting the limited budget and timing constraints of the fragile restaurant industry.
To further streamline the process, the city should work with restaurant business owners to initiate a stakeholder group that includes representatives from city building, zoning and transportation/public works departments. Together, they can decide on long-term needs and how to most efficiently plan and implement those. A pilot program of five to seven covered parklets could also test the solution and work out any potential challenges or concerns. Waiving annual permit fees during the pandemic is also essential for these struggling small businesses.
With this pandemic comes greater need for more creative, functional outdoor spaces. If city planners and design firms integrate their unique perspectives, while prioritizing the specific needs of restaurant owners, they can create accessible and useful outdoor spaces that not only help local businesses now, but can affect the entire city and its economy well into the future.