by Ben Adlin
A new program to convert Seattle streets into open-air café spaces will expand to the Othello neighborhood this weekend, with organizers closing a dead-end road to vehicle traffic and setting up patio-style seating for the community. It’s the latest example of how the city is rethinking its use of public space amid an ongoing pandemic.
For the next four Saturdays, the neighborhood will transform a section of 42nd Avenue South just south of South Myrtle Street into what it’s calling Othello Café Streets, which will have tables and chairs set up for use by neighbors and customers of nearby restaurants, most of which don’t have outdoor seating of their own.
The space, not far from the Othello light rail station, will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., which organizers say will allow allow nearby restaurants, such as family-owned Mexican spot Taco Street and Vietnamese eatery Huong Duong, to offer outdoor eating space during the Saturday lunch rush.
“Most of them have take-out, very little in-restaurant dining, and Saturday lunches seemed to be their busiest time,” said Sarah Valenta, a community and business development manager at HomeSight, a lead partner for the project. “I was told that people will literally take their food and sit on the curb.”
Othello Café Streets is the second such community dining space after Columbia City opened its own version of the program, dubbed The Patio, last weekend. Both projects are part of a Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) pilot program, Seattle Together Streets, that the department has rolled out this summer in an effort to encourage customers to return to local businesses while staying socially distanced and outdoors.
“One of the things that we’ve been really working on within our Street Use Division here at SDOT is trying to find ways for business owners to expand their operations safely,” said Brian Hardison, an SDOT representative. “Right now is a terrific opportunity for us as a community to evaluate what we want our city to look like post-pandemic. It’s fundamentally asing us how we want to use public space.”
Unlike Columbia City’s community area, which will be open all day for six days a week (closed Monday for waste disposal), Othello Café Streets will only be open midday on Saturdays. Organizers said that could be expanded if the area is a success, but for now they’re working to balance the need for an outdoor space with sufficient vehicle access for things like delivery services and take-out orders, which has accounted for the bulk of restaurants’ revenue since reopening during the pandemic. If all goes as planned, Othello Café Streets will cost the neighborhood just a single parking space.
“We’re really trying to be responsive to the needs of the communities that we’re working with and make sure that we’re providing something that works for them,” Hardison said. “The last thing we want to do is swoop in and say, ‘Hey, here’s this one-size-fits-all plan for you.’”
Hardison said that if residents enjoy the new spaces in Othello or Columbia City, they should let SDOT know either by sending an email to email@example.com or by calling the department at 206-684-ROAD (206-684-7623). “Also they can reach out to their councilmember and say, ‘Hey, we really like this, and we want to see more of this!” he said.
Jesiah Wurtz, co-owner of Café Red, a coffee shop in Othello located next to the new space, said he expects neighboring restaurants to see a boost from the Café Streets opening, though it’s too early to tell how big a difference that will make in their bottom line. “Pretty much every business on this block specifically was closed for at least some period of time,” he said. “Closures have been for a number of reasons, but mostly I’d say to make sure their customers and staff can stay protected.”
Under the state’s limited reopening guidelines for businesses, restaurants can offer dine-in service at limited capacity, but many have kept indoor dining rooms closed, either to protect public health or because they worry customers simply won’t come. That’s put a premium on outdoor eating spaces, which most businesses in Othello don’t have.
“We actually are one of the few businesses in the entire city that actually has, like, a nice little covered patio already,” said Wurtz, “but every other business on the block does not have outdoor seating.”
Businesses, including Café Red, Taco Street and Huong Duong, are partnering with the project to help ensure social distancing and keep the area clean.
While the space could be a boon for local businesses, Wurtz said he’s perhaps more excited about the idea of giving the community a safe, sidewalk setting to enjoy an horchata or espresso.
“It’s important right now just to be bringing energy back to the area,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be in super significant or profound ways. Literally just getting a glimpse of someone for a second can be especially empowering right now, especially when we’re so isolated.”
“I’ve already seen it in a very limited capacity how much it means to people just to have a space and be seen and see people,” he said: “There was one dude who was like, ‘You’re the first person I’ve seen aside from my girlfriend in two months!”
Since reopening in recent weeks, Café Red has offered a limited menu of coffee and food items on a pay-what-you-can basis. Wurtz described the decision as a response to what he’s seen during the pandemic so far: “There are a lot of people who are doing OK right now, and they’re definitely happy to pay what it’s worth or maybe even a little bit more. And then there are a lot of people who are hella struggling right now.”
Wurtz admits the model “is not, like, super working,” but says he’ll continue it for now.
Both the pay-what-you-can model and the Othello Café Streets project inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. But as Wurtz pointed out, each happens to address what was an existing need in the community, whether for affordable food or simply a space to unite.
“I think COVID has brought on a lot of things that could’ve happened anyways, for example working from home. That was already happening,” he said. “At the same time too, though, it’s opened up new ideas of what’s possible. And I think that’s what these Café Streets are doing: making us be, like, ‘Whoa!’”
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist
Featured image credited to Marcus Green