The city of Vancouver is moving forward with a program that would allow coffee shops and restaurants to set up tables in the streets outside their businesses.
An early version of the parklet program will likely get a tryout downtown, with the potential to expand to the rest of the city. The idea is an attempt to capitalize on street parking space left vacant during COVID-19 closures — moving tables outside in order to bump up restaurant capacity without compromising social distancing.
Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s community and economic development director, said he’s aiming to have the pilot program ready to launch by June 1 so it can go live immediately after Clark County gets the go-ahead to move into the second phase of reopening.
“We hope to have this up and running by the time Phase 2 under the governor’s order begins,” Eiken told the city council at its meeting this week.
“We’re working through the details,” Eiken added. “We do want to provide some guidance providing barriers to make it safe for people who are congregating in those areas.”
Under Phase 2 of recovery, Clark County’s restaurants, coffee shops and bars will be able to reopen to dine-in service, but only at 50 percent capacity for table seating; bar seating will still be banned. That’s a tall order for food and drink businesses, many of which operate on razor-thin margins even when serving a full house. Running at half-capacity could, for some, prove to be a death sentence.
The parklet idea was first publicly broached as a possible solution by Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle in a Facebook post last week.
The idea drew broad support from the city council Monday.
Councilor Linda Glover, who also serves as vice president of Vancouver’s Downtown Association, said the restaurant owners she’d spoken with were open to the idea.
“We’re trying to gather areas where people could walk from their restaurant outside to their table,” Glover said. “A lot of them can’t even open if it’s 50 percent. They wouldn’t be able to support themselves.”
Liquor still in question
According to Eiken, current Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board policy is unclear on whether bars could serve alcohol to patrons seated at a parklet.
In normal circumstances, it’s illegal for a server to carry an open container of alcohol across a public right-of-way. But exceptions do exist — in 2018, Top Shelf Martinis on Main set a precedent when the board allowed the bar to serve alcohol in a detached patio in order to maintain an open path for pedestrians on the adjacent sidewalk.
And these are anything but normal circumstances.
“We’d be looking for a similar type of perspective from the Liquor Control Board,” Eiken told The Columbian on Wednesday.
In Portland’s Street Seats — the metro’s version of parklets, a program that predates the coronavirus outbreak — businesses and nonprofits can apply for a specific permit that allows them to serve alcohol to the outdoor tables. Applicants also need to obtain a separate permit from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
When Vancouver enters Phase 2, only downtown businesses — south of Fourth Plain Boulevard, and west of Interstate 5 — will be able to opt in to the parklet program initially.
Councilor Sarah Fox pointed out Monday that excluding food and drink businesses elsewhere in the city from the program poses an equity issue.
“How can this idea of parklets help our restaurants throughout the city? I’m really wondering why our eastside business district hasn’t been part of the conversation,” Fox said.
According to Vancouver’s Streets and Transportation Manager Ryan Lopossa, it’s apples and oranges. When a patron is downtown, they can walk out the door of any business, and they’ll immediately find themselves in a public space. Elsewhere in the city, most businesses are surrounded by private parking lots.
Both types of businesses could eventually take advantage of a version of the parklet program, but they’re inherently different spaces with distinct considerations.
“We don’t want to limit it to downtown, but we need to start somewhere,” Lopossa said. “It’s also a learning exercise — we need to learn what’s working and what isn’t.”
Lopossa also offered more details about how the parklet program might work. Individual business owners could opt in by applying for a certain license under the city’s existing Sidewalk Cafe/Seating Permit. The program would be free for businesses who want to participate.
Lopossa said his department is tentatively planning to cap the downtown parklet spots at no more than three or four parking spaces per block, with a half-space of free space in between tables. Individual restaurant owners would be responsible for building and maintaining any additional structures needed to make sure the tables can seat and serve customers safely.
Details of each application will need to be weighed on a case-by-case basis based on a range of factors, he added. What’s the speed limit of the adjacent road? Are the parking spaces parallel or angled?
Another consideration is that removal of parking — even temporarily, and even during a period of lower-than-usual vehicle traffic– is a touchy subject among many business owners downtown.
“We’re working closely with VDA and these businesses as we explore this parklet idea to make sure they understand the trade-off,” Lopossa said.