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Seattle Mayor Finally Gives Greenlight to Create Outdoor Plazas for Restaurants

There will soon be a free application process for street closures, but restaurants have to pay for some expenses

A tree-lined, cobblestone street in Seattle’s Pioneer Square
Restaurants in Seattle can soon apply to have blocks outside their restaurants blocked off.
Getty Images

On Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that restaurants (and other retail businesses) in Seattle could apply for a special permit to close down one or more blocks outside for service. This would essentially create European plaza-like seating, something that’s been discussed here for weeks as a way to help restaurants find more room for outdoor service during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will begin accepting applications July 29.

Though eligibility requirements for these temporary street closure permits have yet to be revealed, there are some hoops to jump through. Restaurants will need to notify and demonstrate support from neighboring businesses and residents of any proposed street closures they want to submit (some businesses may need spaces for delivery and curbside pickup, so it’s not a given that all retail locations on the same block would be on board). And even though typical SDOT permit costs will be waived, any business applicant must pay for expenses such as barricades, temporary no parking signs, and tables and chairs.

The city notes that restaurants will also be required to adhere to all relevant state and local public health guidance for any additional outdoor seating. And permit review times will differ based on the complexity of the application.

This announcement comes a few weeks after Seattle passed legislation that temporarily loosened requirements for sidewalk and curbside seating outside restaurants. Right now, restaurants can get a free temporary “outdoor cafe permit” with an expedited approval process. Food trucks and carts can also apply for more flexibility on their vending location and permit duration, and the permits are valid for up to six months.

But the new announcement is significant for plaza proponents. For weeks, several restaurateurs and lawmakers have pushed for ways to increase outdoor seating while Seattle has been in phase two of the state’s “Safe Start” plan, which allows for 50 percent capacity indoors and outdoors. From what health experts have noted, the natural ventilation in an outdoor setting appears to carry a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission than enclosed spaces, as long as one still adheres to basics such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

Some streets in Seattle have already been considered to make the plaza transformation. 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. No word yet on whether those specific streets will be fast-tracked. This piece will be updated once more information becomes available about eligibility requirements.