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Portland’s new business program will permit in-street commerce


“Plans… are in full swing. We are designing a permit process that will allow not just restaurants but bars, retail, and personal service businesses to access the right-of-way.”
— Margaux Weeke, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office

We’ll be seeing more of this soon.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The food scene in Portland needs no introduction, but it does need more space.

Drawing: NACTO

For restaurant, coffee shop and food cart owners to thrive they have to serve as many people as possible. Physical distancing limitations will make that difficult. As we move to the next phase of the Covid-19 era, Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly wants to find more room for them to operate. Where’s she looking? In the street.

Next week, Commissioner Eudaly and the Portland Bureau of Transportation (which she oversees) will make an announcement about a new (and free) permitting process that will allow business owners to expand into the right-of-way. It will be the next step in the Slow Streets Safe Streets initiative that is slowly but surely transforming how Portlanders use and think about our streets.

“Plans for using the public right-of-way to expand outdoor dining for Portland’s restaurants are in full swing,” Eudaly’s Communications Director Margaux Weeke shared with BikePortland today. “Commissioner Eudaly is excited about the progress we have made on this initiative.”

And it won’t be just food and drink establishments. “Our plan considers open-air commerce as a whole,” Weeke continued. “Meaning we are designing a permit process that will allow not just restaurants but bars, retail, and personal service businesses to access the right-of-way.”

PBOT Planner Mauricio Leclerc hinted at the program at a meeting with the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association yesterday. “As a bureau, we’re imagining, how does that work on a main street like Hawthorne?… You need a certain critical mass of customers to serve, but now you can only have half the crowd inside your restaurant. Can you sustain your business that way? Maybe you need the right-of-way for additional tables… We’re preparing a program to really help businesses get back to normal as quickly as possible using the right-of-way.”

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“We need all the support we can get.”
— Chloe Eudaly, Portland City Commissioner

Portland is no stranger to eating in the street. PBOT launched the “street seats” program in 2012 and it was so warmly received they extended the program a year later. Then there’s the carfree block of SW Ankeny Street downtown. It was turned into a dining area in 2011.

This time around the changes are happening in a much different context. Climate change and congestion had already began to thaw long-frozen assumptions about streets. The pandemic has created a full-on melting.

Yesterday we reported that PBOT is seriously considering protected bike lanes on Hawthorne Boulevard, one of the most high-profile commercial main streets in Portland. The advocate who helped PBOT come around to that idea, Zach Katz, has also launched an effort dubbed Portland Promenade Project. That effort has a Facebook group with 72 members. One of them is Commissioner Eudaly, who’s right there in the trenches along other activists.

“I appreciate the initiative,” Eudaly posted in a recent comment on the Portland Promenades page. “We need all the support we can get.” Eudaly was responding to a rallying cry post from Katz. “Every restaurant I’ve talked to so far wants the whole street,” he proclaimed. “They don’t care about parking or congestion. For the first time ever, nearly 100% of businesses are fully in favor of pedestrianization.”

Eudaly wanted to make sure other activists realize: “There is a lot of opposition to closing streets in the larger community. Even the gentle reminder to not use Neighborhood Greenways [referring to the 100 “local access only” signs and barricades she ordered PBOT to install recently] is getting pushback.”

To avoid opposition to this business-in-the-street program (for lack of a better name), PBOT will have to rely on every innovative, outside-the-box muscle they have. Simply removing all the space we currently give away to free car parking would be an easy first step. But there are myriad complexities once you dig into the details. Leclerc said the effort, “Will be extremely context-sensitive to each area, maybe even to each block.”

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Detail from NACTO’s outdoor dining guidelines.

Oh the many wonderful things we can do with our streets when cars aren’t on them!
(Source: NACTO)

Thankfully the National Association of City Transportation Officials just released an impressive new resource that should give PBOT staff and the Commissioner’s office a roadmap (and a bit of political cover). NACTO’s Streets for Pandemic Response & Recovery (PDF) includes a section on in-street dining areas. They recommend that cities, “Identify restaurant clusters and designate ‘dining street’ zones,” “waive existing permit fees for outdoor dining within preselected zones,” and “establish clear occupancy standards (e.g. table counts) for ‘dining street’ zones.”

Portland will also have to make sure these dining zones don’t privatize public space. One of the drawbacks of Ankeny Alley is that restaurant owners roped off most of the street and left only a few feet for the public to walk through.

The timing of Eudaly’s initiative is also fortuitous because the all-powerful Oregon Liquor Control Commission just announced they’ll fast-track applications for restaurant and bars to sell alcohol on sidewalks and streets.

If momentum holds, calmer streets with more people, fewer cars, and relaxed drinking regulations could be in place just as evenings start to warm up and safer virus precautions are the norm.

At the meeting yesterday, PBOT’s Leclerc said small businesses and restaurants are the “the jewels to the city” and they need more space to shine. As for the street dining program he’s working on. “I think we have something very special going on,” he added.

Stay tuned!

UPDATE, 5:22pm: PBOT will call this effort “Healthy Businesses”. A planner shared more details in a meeting of the PBOT Bureau Budget Advisory Committee today. We’ll have an update Friday morning.

(Source: PBOT)

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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