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City’s New Legislation Looks to Help Seattle Restaurants Expand Outdoor Seating

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The new rules make sidewalk permits free for restaurants and shortens the time for approval; full outdoor plazas could also be coming in July

Sidewalk seating outside a restaurant in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood on a sunny day
Restaurants in Seattle will be able to add outdoor seating on sidewalks through an expedited process.
Suzi Pratt

Al fresco dining may become more prevalent in Seattle soon. On Friday, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council announced new legislation that would make it easier for restaurants to expand seating onto the sidewalk or curb space outside their businesses.

Restaurants can now apply for a free temporary “outdoor cafe permit” without going through a lot of red tape. Small businesses often spend thousands of dollars in outdoor permitting, but the fees from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) would be waived, and SDOT would expedite the approval process. Food trucks and carts can also apply for more flexibility on their vending location and permit duration. The permits would be valid for up to six months.

Restaurants would need to submit a public notice for the special outdoor permit (informing neighbors through calls, emails, or door-knocking), rather than go through a standard two-week public commenting period. Permit approval will vary based on the location, but this would generally reduce the time to get a permission to expand seating by several weeks. Restaurants would still need to get a separate license for serving alcohol outside, though, and have to create enough sidewalk space to comply with regulations in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Outdoor seating has been a hot topic of conversation lately, especially now that Seattle has entered phase two of Washington’s “Safe Start” COVID-19 reopening plan, which allows indoor and outdoor dine-in services to resume at 50 percent capacity. In a recent Eater Seattle survey, about 82 percent of respondents said they would feel safer if Seattle created more outdoor seating, given that the natural ventilation seems to represent a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission than being inside enclosed spaces (although one should still wear a mask and maintain social distancing).

Some in the city have even pushed to close off some streets to create European-like outdoor plazas with cafe and restaurant seating. Mamnoon owner Wassef Haroun submitted a plan to the Seattle council in mid-May to close Melrose Ave for such a purpose, and council member Dan Strauss has proposed similar changes on Ballard Ave NW. In addition to the sidewalk seating rules, the plaza plans may now be closer to reality.

“We’ve been engaging with neighborhood business districts and communities throughout the city on a pilot [for the plazas] that would begin in July,” the mayor’s spokesperson Kelsey Nyland tells Eater Seattle. “SDOT has been evaluating the equity impacts to ensure a plan doesn’t create further disparities for small business owners of color. Similar to our ‘Stay Healthy’ streets plan, this wouldn’t need to go before council.”

The new temporary permitting rules and plaza talk are part of the city’s effort to help small businesses navigate phase two. On Friday, Seattle also debuted new toolkits online, which includes a reopening checklist, resources to access personal protective equipment (PPE), connections to financial assistance, COVID-19 testing information, and rent and commercial lease assistance for small businesses. The information is also available in Amharic, Chinese, Korean, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.