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Seattle City Council to Consider ‘Pathway to Permanency’ for Outdoor Seating Program

Legislation introduced this week would extend the free permit process until May 2022, with an eye on putting a longer lasting plan in place

On a sunny day, several tables are set up outside Optimism Brewing on Broadway Court, with masked patrons sitting down
Optimism Brewing is one of several Seattle bars that took advantage of free outdoor street permits.
Optimism Brewing [Official Photo]

This week brings some encouraging news for the future of outdoor dining in Seattle. On Monday, May 10, Seattle city councilmembers Dan Strauss and Lorena González introduced new legislation to extend the city’s current program allowing for more outdoor plazas to May 2022. If passed, the new bill would also create a “pathway to permanency” for the program, which could have a huge impact on Seattle’s dining scene. Strauss tells Eater Seattle the extension allows the permits to be free for an additional seven months beyond the planned expiration of the program this fall, but the permanent plan would likely need to be hashed out with low fees in mind.

Last July, Seattle created free expedited permits for outdoor dining, which experts believe carries a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission than enclosed indoor spaces. Under the new rules, restaurants can acquire a free temporary “outdoor cafe permit” for curbside, sidewalk, and even certain closed off blocks for full plazas without going through a lot of red tape and added cost. Small businesses often spend thousands of dollars in outdoor permitting, but the fees from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) are waived through the program, and SDOT has expedited the approval process. SDOT says it has issued about 200 permits since the program began, which includes retail shops as well as restaurants, cafes, and bars.

In the fall, the outdoor seating area rules were officially extended until October 2021 when it became clear that the impacts from the pandemic were not receding any time soon and that restaurants would struggle to weatherize patios through colder months. But there was uncertainty on the fate of the program beyond that date.

Strauss and González’s legislation would extend the existing rules until at least May 31, 2022, and give the council time to put in place measures that would potentially make the program a long-lasting fixture in Seattle. “We ran a pilot program and we want it to be permanent, so this bill would create an interim period,” says Strauss, adding that there needs to be outreach to disability groups to make sure that any fixed regulations are inclusive to all ages and needs.

The councilmember also says he’s working on an amendment that lays out concrete steps for outreach in developing a permanent program, since SDOT will need to take the time between now and next May to determine what future fees might look like. Before the pandemic, the fees for many curbside spaces occupied by restaurant seating, were based on what the parking space cost, but Strauss believes those fee structures will need to be much more friendly to restaurants (and, no, the permits will likely not be free forever). Lawmakers and SDOT will also attempt to determine how to accommodate block closures for restaurant and outdoor cafe seating on a more permanent basis, and what street redesigns would look like in those cases. Extending the current program until next spring gives them the room to do so.

The city council will discuss the new legislation in Strauss’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee on Wednesday, May 12, with a vote by the full council expected May 17.