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Walla Walla’s downtown reopening plan progresses

  • Updated
  • 6 min to read

Downtown is bright with orange chairs and tape on the sidewalks marking changes Walla Walla City Council and state agencies have made to allow businesses more flexibility as the county progresses in Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan.

The city has a COVID-19 economic re-start plan to support businesses and provide unique outdoor dining and customer experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Code changes to carry out this plan were approved at the Council’s last regular meeting.

Relaxed codes and regulations will allow restaurant owners and other businesses such as wineries to place alfresco tables and chairs out to the curb and up against buildings, with a 3 foot pathway to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

To expand outdoor seating, businesses will need to apply to the city for a permit. There is no fee for the permit.

Also staff will now be allowed to serve alcohol at these curbside tables as long as there is orange tape around the seating area — no roping off or fencing required. Businesses must receive a special permit from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in order to do this.

“The trick is, if you are receiving the drink … you can’t pick your drink up and walk down across the sidewalk,” said City Manager Nabiel Shawa. “You have to stay and consume the alcohol within that orange taped area up against the curb.”

Other transformations will involve closing a portion of South First Avenue for the summer and into fall to increase outdoor dining. The city will install permanent street lighting there.

Also a once-a-week evening closing of Main Street is tentatively scheduled to begin the night of Saturday, July 11, and continue weekly on Saturdays to allow merchants, restaurant owners, musicians, artists and other businesses to fill the streets with activities.

The city is providing some tables, chairs, lighting and other amenities with funding from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, said Shawa. About $1.02 million was allocated to the city, and staff will use about $250,000 on this project, he said.

The city’s primary goal is economic recovery and suppressing the spread of the coronavirus, Shawa said.

He said epidemiologists have made it clear if you have an option, it is best when in public to eat outside, recreate outside and shop outside to help prevent the virus from spreading.

Outdoor diningOther City Council’s code changes will allow four parklets to emerge as pilot projects. Parklets, also characterized as alfresco dining areas, are limited-access spaces assigned to a particular restaurant to expand their outdoor seating, Development Services Director Elizabeth Chamberlain said.

The city will provide the material for the projects, and businesses will pay for the labor to build parklets. These projects may take up space on sidewalks or be built on a few parking spaces.

“The first parklet permit was issued yesterday to Public House 124, and I know that development services is working with three other restaurants on their permitting and that is Brasserie Four, Bacon & Eggs and TMACS,” Shawa said Wednesday.

Those businesses are already getting started on planning.

“We’re moving forward, picking out fabric colors and different final design touches,” Matthew Price-Huntington, co-owner of Public House 124, said last week.

His business will have a 12-by-30-foot extension of it patio adjacent to Heritage Square Park downtown.

The design will use the existing 42-inch rail in front of the Public House 124 building to extend down around the patio expansion area with one row of dining on the sidewalk and one row into Heritage Square, which is supported by a riser, according to the proposed design from the restaurant owners.

Price-Huntington said cafe lights will be installed, and it’s possible mechanisms misting the air and fabric will run the length of the patio on top to provide shade.

He said they went through with the expansion to increase revenue and thereby help increase tax revenue that will eventually come back to the city.

“I think it will help separate us from everywhere else for all of the tourism that’s coming to town,” Price-Huntington said. “It helps elevate the level of what we offer as a community and having now outdoor space to provide fine dining and fun times for guests coming to town.”

The design for this parklet was especially appealing to the city manager.

“One thing I like about their proposal is that they don’t need to take any parking spaces,” Shawa said. “We’re looking at a balance. Ideally, we do not want all of these on Main Street taking up parking … We’re willing to try this, but we also have to be sensitive to the impact on that as well.”

Bacon & Eggs owners proposed their parklet would take up three parking spaces.

Brasserie Four would take up two, possibly three.

TMACS definitely wants a parklet and has already hired a designer to draw up designs, Shawa said.

“TMACS is just going to be able to use up basically one parking space … adjacent to their front door,” he said.

He said this parklet being proposed would overhang the sidewalk by about 3 feet and then project out into the parking space.

Businesses were told that they’re allowed to keep these parklets for the next year, and then the Council will assess how well they function and any issues that come up, Shawa said.

Council will decide then how to move forward by either having more parklets or keeping the existing ones, he said.

“It’s really kind of an open-ended experiment,” Shawa said.

Downtown plazaThe city will also close South First Avenue from Main Street to East Alder for the entire summer as part of its reopening plan.

The closure creates a flag-shape plaza downtown with the East lane closest to restaurants Yamas Greek Eatery and Sweet Basil Pizzeria closed entirely but a portion of the West lane remaining open to the one-way alley for delivery trucks and Banner Bank employees and customers.

The purpose of this closure is to create a plaza filled with tables, chairs and umbrellas to provide more outdoor seating for downtown.

This plan was discussed between city staff and representatives from the businesses on South First Avenue. From among a variety of options, such as closing the entire street or half of the street, business owners voted unanimously for the flag-shaped plaza, Shawa said.

The city will close off the street beginning in July, and they have not set a date yet for its reopening. The plaza will be set up for the remainder of the season, possibly until October or November.

Large flower planters owned by the city will be re-positioned to restrict traffic from entering the plaza, Shawa said.

Decorative lightingHanging lights will be set up permanently in a few places to drape across the street and add to the mood of downtown.

Five posts will be installed on each side of the street on South First Avenue. A cable system will run parallel to each post, and the lights will be draped across the street every 8 feet, Parks and Recreation Director Andy Coleman said.

The minimum height for the lights will be 16 ½ feet, he said.

The lights will stay up all year long, Shawa said.

There’s also a possibility they will drape the lights from the poles and attach them to the building, he said.

South First Avenue between Alder and Main streets will be closed from midnight to 10 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday this week so crews can work on installing this street lighting. Detour routes will be in place, and emergency vehicles will have access, according to a release.

A light structure on North Colville Street between East Main Street and East Rose Street is also considered but has been postponed at this time, Coleman said. It may happen in the future.

Weekend street closures

City staff will also close East Main Street one evening per weekend through the summer to allow for more outdoor dining, shopping and entertainment.

The tentative plan is to start Saturday, July 11, at 6 p.m. and close Main Street from Second Avenue to Park Street. The plan for now is to continue this every Saturday until Labor Day.

“We have to work with the merchants. We’re still talking about exactly what days. But at least thinking of closing Main Street in evening hours is the initial concept,” the city manager said.

This arrangement would allow merchants to spill all the way out fully with tables on the sidewalks, spill into the streets with retail, with food, he said. And the plan is to have music and possibly bring in food trucks.

“The idea is just to really make it enjoyable to go downtown on Saturday nights, give enough distance and space so we can keep social distancing, because frankly, that’s one of the cause of concerns,” Shawa said. “We want to get back to business, but we want to be safe about it. We do not want to regress back into Phase 1, we want to move forward into Phase 3 and 4.”

When Main Street is closed, staff will also close associated side streets from Second Street and as far down as Park Street because it is hard to maneuver cars around barricades, he said.

The city may have alfresco galleries or exhibits for local artists, interactive public art projects and project visuals on a building, Shawa said.

“We really hope the retailers come out,” he said.

It adds to the energy and visuals on East Main Street for retailers to participate, which is not easy for them, the city manager said.

“We would ask that they consider doing that, but we also understand, just like the closure of Main Street, it takes a lot of labor to do this; it doesn’t happen easily,” he said. “Really, for this to work, we need their participation.”

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Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.