The Edmonds City Council on Monday will consider halving a controversial $4,000 fee on “streateries” — restaurants using the public right of way for outdoor dining during the pandemic — it passed last week along with an extension of the temporary accommodation.
The reconsideration, announced in a council agenda posted Saturday, comes after an outcry over the issue, and amid uncertainty about how the expected surge in new coronavirus cases from the omicron variant will impact business operations, including indoor dining capacity. Meanwhile, parking shortages along Edmonds’ bustling Main Street and Fifth Avenue South, and the roughhewn appearance of some of the temporary outdoor dining structures have prompted calls to regulate or remove the streateries.
Edmonds allowed outdoor dining in parking spaces beginning in August 2020 under a special-event permit. In December 2020, it incorporated streateries into the city code, with a sunset date of Dec. 31.
They have been an important lifeline for restaurants during the last year, allowing them to serve diners eager to go out for a meal without eating inside, said Shubert Ho, chef and co-owner of Edmonds restaurants including Salt & Iron, Fire & The Feast, and The MAR•KET. While not big moneymakers in themselves, streateries “helped us stay aloft,” Ho said.
The Washington Hospitality Association has urged Edmonds to maintain streateries. “Restaurants have been the hardest hit of any industry during the pandemic, and many have taken on large amounts of debt to keep their doors open,” the industry group’s chief executive, Anthony Anton, said via email Sunday. Streateries “are one way local governments can help restaurants, while providing options for consumers.”
Ho agrees that restaurants should pay an increased fee for streateries, in part as a gesture of good faith toward retailers concerned about lost parking spaces. But he said he wishes council members would be cognizant of restaurateurs’ ongoing struggle to recover financially from the early pandemic lockdowns and operate amid changing circumstances.
The Edmonds City Council will meet Monday evening over Zoom to consider reducing the streateries fee to $2,000, extending the timeline to allow them through the end of May, and let businesses pay in installments, rather than a lump sum due Dec. 31.
The current ordinance, passed by the council Thursday, left the owners of some 17 restaurants with streateries with a tight deadline to decide whether to keep them through April and pay the $4,000 fee or remove them by Jan. 15. Revenue from the fee is earmarked to procure parking spaces in private lots nearby. The streateries occupy 34 parking spaces in Edmonds.
Councilmember Laura Johnson said she voted Thursday for the ordinance to prevent the streateries from sunsetting, but she thought adding a hefty fee on a successful program was a mistake.
“We’ve had the good fortune, combined with creative planning, to weather the pandemic. That’s not a small thing,” she said, adding, “The streateries are key to that.”
She discussed a potential compromise with Edmonds Councilmember Will Chen, who had proposed a $2,000 fee during last week’s debate, and worked with Council President Susan Paine to set the Monday meeting.
The $2,000 fee is in line with a proposal floated by downtown merchants and restaurateurs, including Ho’s group, Feedme Hospitality & Restaurant Group, using streateries. Chen said that the omicron surge also creates new impetus to reconsider.
“This situation just keeps evolving,” Chen said. “This definitely is one of the reasons we’re having another discussion.”
Chen and Johnson said the streateries as now built are clearly meant to be a short-term accommodation. They both said the city should explore whether some version of outdoor dining space could become a permanent feature of the city.
“In many respects, the pandemic has brought forth a lot of possibilities and this is one of them — the re-imagining of public spaces,” Johnson said.
Ho also wants to keep streateries as part of his restaurants’ service offerings. He acknowledges they should take a more aesthetically pleasing form.
“You could have a streateries program that could look unified with the way Edmonds always was” before the pandemic, he said.