Downtown Walla Walla businesses can keep their streateries — sometimes called “parklets” or outdoor dining structures — but must follow a set of new guidelines.
Walla Walla City Council unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday, April 14, that allows the structures to stay put, as long as guidelines are followed, for another three years as the city further assesses their impacts.
The new rules came after the city heard concerns about displaced parking, aesthetics, blocked views of buildings and inconsistent decor.
The outdoor dining efforts were made as a quick reaction to help businesses when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in indoor capacity restrictions, but they became a popular commodity downtown.
The city conducted a downtown walkabout, soliciting feedback from owners of street-level businesses, and took an informal tally. The survey concluded 73 business owners favored staff recommendations, five did not and six were undecided or concerned.
The city also reached out to other groups affected for feedback, and people sent over 80 emails, with an overwhelming majority in favor of the outdoor dining structures.
Staff presented the changes to Council at a virtual work session Monday, April 12, which give businesses until May 1 to remove any side panel fabric and tent-like structures. They also have until January 1, 2022, to attain permission from property owners to keep such structures and until February 2022 to align the streatery to match the frontage of the building, if it is not already aligned.
The resolution does not formalize the city’s code. Instead, it allows administrative policy control and flexibility as staff learns what works and what does not in the three-year period, City Manager Nabiel Shawa said.
“If we adopted those standards today into law, it would be cumbersome. Every time you want to make a little adjustment, we’d have to come back to Council and go through this process again,” Shawa said at the work session.
The streatery operators will need to remove any tents or fabric panels because feedback suggested such decor dominates the landscape, blocks the buildings along Main Street and is not cohesive with the rest of the city’s aesthetic, Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Chamberlain said in her presentation of the new standards.
“When we had the restrictions that were implemented back in November where you could only eat outside, obviously we were dealing with weather elements and whatnot and understand why some of those components of the streateries went into place, but now … we’re proposing that those side panel fabric and the tent-like structures and those elements be removed,” she said.
Design standards included using either warm white cafe or patio lights that do not glare out into the travel way and having furniture that is consistent with the style and design of the furniture the city provided. Businesses were also encouraged to use planters.
Big decisions made by City Council regarding al fresco dining downtown also included the following:
- The First Avenue plaza, which closed a portion of the street between First and Main streets and Alder and Main streets to provide outdoor public seating in the center of downtown, will be a permanent installation, Chamberlain said. The city will investigate modification to the signal operations there, initiate an engineering review for construction options and finalize a design with Council this summer, she said.
- Temporary expanded outdoor seating, such as tables and chairs placed on the sidewalk, will be allowed through the end of 2021 as indoor seating capacity is still limited to 50%. However, 15-minute temporary parking stalls for restaurant take-out will be removed in April, Chamberlain said.
- The city also put a moratorium on adding new streateries to the city landscape, meaning no new streateries can be constructed through the end of 2023 to allow staff to evaluate the pilot program, she said.
During the pilot program, staff will evaluate parking downtown and retail sales in 2021, 2022 and 2023 compared with data prior to having the streateries.
The city will partner with Eastern Washington University doctorate professor D. Patrick Jones, executive director of the Institute of Public Policy and Economic Analysis, to assist with economic analysis. Staff findings will be reported to Council periodically, with a final report in the winter of 2023-2024, Chamberlain said.
During the virtual Council meeting Wednesday, City Attorney Tim Donaldson fielded a question from the public about why the property owner can decide whether a business owner can have a streatery. Donaldson said the city doesn’t own the streets but has an easement, and the city’s ability to permit certain uses in the streets is limited without the property owner’s consent.
That is also a consistent practice the city has followed in the past.
No Council members expressed opposition to the resolution, but some did add suggestions.
Council member Steve Moss said he recommended the city consider slowing traffic from Second Avenue to South Palouse Street to 20 mph and properly sign the area with information about the speed change and narrowed streets.
Council member Myron Huie recommended the city consider adding lights to Second Avenue, where the other wineries are, to draw tourists in who are coming off U.S. Highway 12.