by Sarah Mirk
This month, Portland unveiled the first outdoor cafe in its new Street Seats program, a venture that will convert on-street parking spaces into outdoor extensions of businesses. The first raised-platform seating was built outside Wafu on SE Division; by the end of the year, we'll see up to 12 of these little spots spring up.
Street Seats is in the same vein as the transformation of SW Ankeny into a car-free outdoor cafe. And it raises the same issues over how we use our city's streets: Is it a good idea to convert public right-of-way into private space? Twenty percent of Portland's land area is public right-of-way including streets, sidewalks, and on-street parking, so conversion of that space into other uses bit by bit could have a big impact over time.
While Street Seats is modeled on resoundingly successful "parklet" programs in New York and San Francisco, those cities' programs are different than Portland's in a key way. After they convert parking spots to outdoor seating, those seats are public and cannot be used for commercial purposes. That means New York and SF businesses can't restrict the space's use to just their customers, offer table service, or allow people sitting in the street-side tables to drink alcohol. Portland's new parking-spot-cafes will be reserved for use only by patrons of the restaurants sponsoring them.
The sponsor restaurants have to pony up some money for the new sidewalk cafe space. If the space was metered parking (like on SW Ankeny), the businesses have to pay the city the estimated lost revenue from the space. They also pay a $450 permit fee and bear all the cost of designing, building, and installing the cafe platforms. But in places without metered parking—like Wafu's spot on Division—they don't pay anything to lease the formerly-public land from the city.
"There's a lack of places to sit and relax in our cities and a little too much space is dedicate to the use of the automobile," says Matt Passmore, of Rebar, a San Francisco-based design firm that's been a champion of parklets nationwide. But the private-space aspects of Portland's program is troubling, he says. "If the city is giving the right to do commercial activity in the space and exclude people from that space, then the city should be charging market rate for that land. Otherwise, it's a public subsidy for that restaurant."
Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dan Anderson notes, though, that the cafes will be used by more people daily than the parking spots were, making the land arguably more use to the general public. "Space in the right-of-way is no longer used for storing cars, but it really activates it for a lot more people. It was rare to have a person in the spaces [on SW Ankeny], except for someone who's getting into or out of their car," says Anderson. It's a valid point—for someone who doesn't own a car, the "public" parking space has always been restricted land. Instead of storing private vehicles on the public space, we're storing private tables.
Making the space private has clear benefits to their small businesses sponsors, like being able to serve alcohol in the spots. "Business owners, in our dialogue with them about this pilot season, said serving alcohol was something they wanted. We're all about helping businesses succeed," says Anderson.
Portland Architecture editor and general smart guy Brian Libby strikes a middle-note on this debate. While he's concerned in theory about the conversion of public space into private space, parking spots are not the type of public land that people want to occupy, anyway. Because there are so many parking spots in American cities, we can spare a few to become sidewalk cafes, he says, which will make the streets themselves more inviting to the public. "Putting in a few restuarant tables sounds like fun more than opening Pandora's box," says Libby. "Streets and freeways still dominate the built environment in the United States and it's right to reclaim some of that space."