City staff and business owners have been working to keep the spirit of downtown Walla Walla alive during the coronavirus pandemic through a new venture after months of business closure and capacity limits — alfresco dining.
This Friday evening, those who wander downtown will see stringed lights over a partially closed South First Avenue between Main and Alder streets with tables, chairs and umbrellas spread out over the pavement.
Planters were placed to block the roadway, except for the southbound lane from the alley to Alder. Residents and visitors will be able to dine out under the lights with state-mandated social distancing.
Stringed lights also decorate the landscape on Main Street trees from Third Avenue to Palouse Street as well as the side-street trees.
Tables with orange chairs and umbrellas and orange tape marking where diners can be served are bright spots all over downtown, bringing more capacity to businesses that require seating for drinking and dining outdoors, since indoor capacity is limited by health and safety concerns.
The alfresco movement expands into new territory with seating arrangements for those restaurants chosen for “parklet” pilot projects. Those four eateries have projects that are close to completion and allow platforms with planters, seating, overhead lights and more to bring the restaurant outside.
Many of these new additions bring some business back to Walla Walla Valley, where it is needed, as businesses were not sure they would even make it through the pandemic, said Tom Maccarone, owner of TMACS. His downtown restaurant is one with a dining parklet developing outside.
Initially when these downtown plans were discussed, city staff said a portion of Main Street would be closed for an ongoing event tentatively planned for Saturdays that would bring outdoor seating, music, art and liveliness.
Now the city is planning this for Labor Day weekend, looking at running the program in September and October, depending on where the county is in the governor’s phased re-opening.
Currently, Walla Walla County is in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan. This phase requires businesses to be open at 50% or less of their capacity, and table sizes can be no larger than five people.
Maccarone said with these Phase 2 requirements, the TMACS restaurant cannot open their casual dining bar, lounge or private dining room.
“So at 50% capacity, it financially doesn’t make sense for us to open the inside of the restaurant,” he said.
In Phase 3, requirements allow for 75% capacity, but the restaurant still can’t use the bar, which leaves just two areas in the restaurant open.
Maccarone’s solution was to build an “outdoor oasis.” This outdoor dining area rests on top of a platform placed in a parking spot in front of the restaurant on North Coville Street. Planters provide decoration while the tables have a view of the sun setting as waiters bring food and drinks from the kitchen and bar inside to the outdoor atmosphere.
This parklet is still being completed, but it has been operating for a couple of weeks now. Maccarone plans to add more lights, canvas sails to go on the top and patio chairs and patio furniture to form a cocktail lounge.
“If I didn’t have this outside seating right now, it would have been questionable whether we would have made it,” he said.
The Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan help, he said, but they don’t save the restaurant.
Parklets are also under construction while being operated at Bacon and Eggs, Brasserie Four and Public House 124, all along Main Street. Business owners covered labor costs and added amenities. Definitive Design & Construction was the contractor for three of these four parklets.
The city provide a portion of its national coronavirus relief funds for limited materials along with the seating, umbrellas, the stringed lights downtown and more.
“I applaud the city for thinking outside the box,” Maccarone said. “They have gone above and beyond from what other communities have done.”
And city staff helped expedite the permitting process, he said.
“If they wouldn’t have done that and made these happen as fast as they did, again like I said, I don’t know if we would be here,” he said. “ I thank them honestly from the bottom of my heart, for pushing so hard and understanding the severity of what would happen if we started to lose our restaurants downtown.”
City leaders approved a few code changes in late May to help with these projects. One allowed the seating on sidewalks out to the curb and up against buildings, with a 3-foot pathway to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
Another was allowing for parklets to use a few parking spaces downtown. Business owners were told that they’re allowed to keep these parklets for the next year, and then the City Council will assess how well they function and any issues that come up, City Manager Nabiel Shawa said in an earlier interview.
Council members will decide then how to move forward by either approving more parklets or keeping the existing ones, he said.
“They appear to be quite popular and in heavy use,” Shawa said. “Many, many positive comments from citizens, visitors and restaurants!”
Maccarone said the city has to give people more reasons to come to Walla Walla than just the shops and restaurants and wineries. It has to be spectacular and different than what Tri-Cities and Wenatchee are and different than other small towns in Eastern Washington that have wine.
As well, many business owners and city staff have expressed the importance of outdoor seating with keeping the coronavirus’s transmission down.
“I believe that people are fearful,” Maccarone said. “I believe that they are more comfortable if they are going out to sit outside than inside, and we’re going to stick with that as long as we can.”