by Ben Adlin
Last summer, when the first COVID-19 vaccine was still months away and indoor dining was limited, a group of businesses in Columbia City transformed a half block’s worth of South Ferdinand Street into The Patio, a shared outdoor seating area open to everyone. Residents could order takeout from nearby Geraldine’s Counter or Lottie’s Lounge, sure — or they could just drop in and say hello to friends they might not have seen since the pandemic began.
After months of social isolation, “a few people said it just kind of saved their life,” said Lottie’s owner Beau Hebert. “They were just going bonkers.”
The project unfolded under a special pilot program by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), part of an aggressive push by the agency to quickly convert public streets and sidewalks into outdoor seating. Restaurants at the time were facing mass closures, and open-air dining offered customers a less-risky alternative to venturing inside. Changes to SDOT’s permitting process, including waiving fees that sometimes cost several thousand dollars per year, led to a proliferation of patio seating across the city.
But with restrictions on indoor dining now gone and nearly three in four eligible King County residents fully vaccinated, the city faces a choice: What to do with its outdoor dining and new communal spaces?
“The silver lining, if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, has been that it’s asked us to stop and reimagine what Seattle’s going to look like,” SDOT representative Brian Hardison told the Emerald. “Now is the time that we’re actively considering how to change things. Do we have to do things the way we’ve always done them?”
From now through Aug. 15, SDOT is asking community members to weigh in. An online survey polls residents and business owners about their experiences with and support for the programs — including sidewalk cafés, food carts, and retail displays in the public right-of-way and full-block closures that restyled streets into pedestrian-only spaces.
The Patio in Columbia City falls into the last category, and it’s the exception rather than the rule. While about a dozen similar shared outdoor spaces opened across the city during the pandemic — Eater described them as “creating European, plaza-like seating” — the vast majority of the newly permitted spots were effectively extensions of individual businesses.
“We’re a pretty unique animal, being a neighborhood-sponsored place,” said Rob Mohn, a member of the Columbia City Business Association and one of the organizers who helped launch The Patio. While he said he supports all outdoor seating under the new SDOT programs, he thinks more communal spaces offer something special. “My interest is in the creation of those public spaces, and that takes a neighborhood-driven parklet to meet that need.”
SDOT recently extended all the pandemic-era permits through May 2022, which will allow the outdoor areas to continue existing while the agency explores how to “provide an off-ramp from the emergency mode into a long-term, more sustainable mode,” Hardison said. He described the current permits as “retrofitting something in response to an emergency.”
“Before things roar back into the way they were before,” he said, “now’s the chance to kind of reenvision how we’re doing this stuff.”
The department wants feedback not only from community members but also business owners, and especially those who applied for but didn’t receive permits. The goal, Hardison said, is to understand how SDOT can better support local groups and businesses trying to convert the public right-of-way into community-building spaces — while at the same time ensuring that projects support local communities and don’t impact accessibility or interfere with essential services.
“There’s a limited amount of space from building-front to building-front, and you’re trying to balance that limited space,” Hardison said. “How can we support our communities and transform the space into something that’s inviting and welcoming and makes people feel at home — [so] that the space isn’t just for cars?”
In Columbia City, residents aren’t waiting another year to see what happens with the city permits. A neighborhood group formed last year, Columbia Hillman Neighbors in Action, is now working to turn The Patio into a permanent parklet that will exist as a community meeting space and rallying point.
“SDOT has already said that we can keep it the way it is,” at least until the permits expire next year, said Karin Kallander, a member of the group. “But we want to close it off from Rainier and make it a parklet and make it a safe space where we can do all sorts of things.”
Kallander and other members conceive of the space on Ferdinand as a protected area off the main thoroughfare of Rainier Avenue that will benefit everyone.
“Sure, you can go there and have a beer, or you can just go there and hang out,” said another member, John Unangst. The future space might not be the exact footprint of The Patio or carry the same name — although the group hasn’t ruled it out — but the spirit would remain the same.
“The streateries are cool and they help the individuals,” Unangst said. But he noted there’s something different about the open, people-centered feeling of The Patio.
“It’s about community and it’s about connection, and there are silver linings from COVID and this is one of them,” added Kallander. “Having a space where people can gather without having to buy something, but also where events can be held if there’s a political rally or music of some sort, like Beatwalk.”
The neighborhood group has ideas for how they’d like to change the space, such as lifting the street to sidewalk height to eliminate curbs, which one member likened to Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park. So far, however, most of their focus is practical: things like accessible trash removal, installing effective signage to keep drivers from accidentally entering the space, and replacing existing tents with fire-resistant structures that would allow the use of propane heaters during colder months. They’d even like to eventually hire someone to ensure the area stays clean. “The expectation is that patrons will wipe down their tables and everything, but they don’t. It kind of falls on Geraldine’s and Lottie’s,” said Kallander.
“Beyond that, we don’t know yet!” said Unangst. “We want to open it up to input but constrain those choices to be realistic and feasible.” He added that the group is working with local landscape architect and organizer Eric Higbee to lay out the eventual vision.
The group has launched a petition in an effort to demonstrate community support and is asking community members who can afford it to contribute a $5 monthly fee to a Patreon, which the group describes as “our virtual piggy bank for art, music and community fun!” The group is also working to secure federal grants and other funding.
Many surrounding businesses, especially those that supported The Patio’s creation, say they support the plan and are happy to see the space focus more on community than local restaurants or shops.
“It’s been a godsend to have it here with the pandemic happening, with all the restaurants not being able to have indoor seating,” said Karla Esquivel, owner of nearby Andaluz, which sells clothing, local jewelry, books, gifts, and cosmetics. Without The Patio, she said, her shop would have been in “a much more dire situation.”
“It’s beneficial for the businesses, but it’s been, I think, even more beneficial for the community,” Esquivel said. “It created a space for people in the pandemic to come and meet other people in a safe outdoor space, and now it’s — it’s the one thing that Columbia City’s lacked. And I’ve been here as a business owner and resident for 18 years.”
“People get their coffee. Neighborhood people can say, ‘Oh, let’s meet at The Patio.’ People play music out there,” she added. Columbia City used to have a designated space for community events, but that’s moved and sometimes disappeared as the neighborhood has changed in recent decades and longtime residents and businesses have been displaced amid a flurry of redevelopment.
“We’ve just — we’ve kind of been lost,” Esquivel said. “We haven’t had a solid space like that. I think it’s really cool for everybody: businesses, community, newcomers, all comers — everyone’s benefiting.”
“The one person who’s against it doesn’t even live in the neighborhood,” she said, declining to name that person other than to say he owns a number of Columbia City properties, including a nearby parking lot.
Hebert, at Lottie’s, identified the chief opponent as Pete Lamb, the landlord for a number of businesses involved in The Patio, although not Hebert’s own. “He represents none of the values that those of us in Columbia City treasure,” Hebert said.
In a phone interview with the Emerald, Lamb said he’s not alone in opposing The Patio, which he sees as a giveaway by the City to local business.
“The people who are for it pay virtually nothing,” he said. “It’s of course been a super fun, popular thing, since they don’t pay the City’s right-of-way charges, which are substantial, for the use of the property.”
When The Patio opened, Lamb said, it was billed as temporary — and his business partner supported it. Together, he said, they own about three-quarters of the properties on the surrounding block, as well as a parking lot behind Lottie’s Lounge.
“The reason we went along with it at the start is it was billed as temporary. Like, when you didn’t need to have it anymore [it would close],” Lamb said. “But when everything opened back up, nobody called it non-temporary, and now they want it there all the time. Well, when are they going to pay us for the damage to our business?”
Lamb told the Emerald his parking lot dropped to “less than 20%” of its normal operation and over the last two months was still operating at less than 50%. While he attributed some of the loss to the pandemic itself, he argued that The Patio’s effective closure of Ferdinand Street has devastated the parking lot.
“He’s conflating his lack of business with The Patio,” Hebert replied. “We were all down 80% last year.”
Other business owners noted that nearby theaters and music venues have also been closed for much of the past year due to the pandemic, which could conceivably also affect a parking lot business. The City also temporarily reduced street parking prices during the pandemic.
Lamb said as a major landlord in the area for the past 20 years, he’s “dumped huge amounts of money into revitalizing that place” and was on the Columbia City Business Association for 10 years “when it really, really needed it.”
“It’s changed incredibly since the late ’90s,” he said. “When we bought down there, we bought a bankrupt church. We gave them enough money so they could move and start over. There were prostitutes on the corner, there were drug deals in the parking lot. A third of the businesses in Columbia City looked derelict.”
During the pandemic, he said, he’s tried to be supportive. He said he didn’t raise rents on tenants, forgave a few months rent when restrictions were tightest, and “offered a cash, no-questions-asked subsidy to anyone and their employees who was really in trouble: a thousand bucks.”
“Having these ‘locals,’ who are local in the sense they’ve lived there for four years, thinking they’re entitled to the fucking Patio really disturbs me.”
Asked whether he’s submitted comments to SDOT about the street use, he replied: “Not recently. I did for about 16 years, but since they ignored about everything I ever said, I sort of lost enthusiasm for the process.” He said he’s considering selling the parking lot off Ferdinand Street “for several million dollars to developers so they could build a four- or five-story building … and walk away.”
“How’s everybody going to feel when there’s a five-story building on that parking lot?” he asked.
Hebert said that for his business and others — including many of Lamb’s commercial tenants, who support the project — The Patio “still remains a salvation.”
“This ain’t over. We really don’t know what’s coming next,” he said of the pandemic. “Although we’re technically allowed to be at 100% occupancy, just the footprint of Lottie’s is so small that we reconfigured things to maximize airflow.” That means current capacity is more like 80% pre-pandemic.
If The Patio becomes permanent and the subscription-funding model catches on, Hebert said he’d happily consider pitching in $200 or so each month.
“The Patio very directly served as an anchor of sanity and a counter to depression to actual members of our community throughout the winter,” he recalled. “Whatever it represented to me from a business perspective, just knowing that aspect of it was helpful makes me feel awesome.”
He’s not worried about the winter ahead. “We pivoted to the soup thing — warm soup, hot toddy,” he said “Huddle up and act like you’re in Scandinavia. A lot of people embraced that.”
As for downsides, Hebert said the only drawback he’s observed so far is trash. “That’s been the one point of what I’d call contention about it, and honestly the biggest challenge. … Geraldine’s has really just been so amazing. I’ve done my part, but just not anywhere near what they’ve been doing.” Others also mentioned the need for better signage.
Not every public space begun under the SDOT programs has been so lucky. Another communal space that was envisioned as a South End meeting hub and outdoor dining area, Othello Café Streets, closed due to lack of engagement by volunteer businesses and the surrounding community. Unlike The Patio in Columbia City, which is open seven days a week, Othello’s space was only open four hours per week.
“Honestly I love it and I wish it were still here and on a consistent schedule,” said Jesiah Wurtz, co-owner of coffee shop Café Red. “This kind of thing absolutely should exist, it’s just that it needs to be better funded so we can have people we can actually rely on and so we can have something more permanent.”
More permanent like The Patio wants to be? “Exactly that,” Wurtz replied.
Individual businesses, meanwhile, are still exploring their options under the new permitting program. A few in Columbia City didn’t respond to the Emerald’s emails, but Bridgette Johnson, who opened Central Cafe and Juice Bar in the Central District in January 2020 and set up a back patio during the pandemic, said she’s currently readying an application for one of the new outdoor dining permits, which are still available.
“I’m excited and hopeful that this extension of my business will allow me to continue and grow,” Johnson said, “while saving a few permit fees for a while.”
As SDOT gathers feedback on the programs, the agency says it’s trying to reach out specifically to South Seattle residents. “Oftentimes we hear a bunch of stuff from the folks in West Seattle or Ballard,” Hardison said. “The communities we really want to hear from, we don’t always hear from.
“We’re like, ‘Huh, is this going to be cool, everyone?’”
If communities do show broad support for reclaiming streets for mixed use, is there a real chance some might become permanent? Hardison thinks so.
“We’re not just going to take that information and go, ‘OK, we’re just going to roll it back to the way it was before,’” he said.
While he stressed that he wasn’t “trying to put all the work back on the community,” he invited people to reach out to SDOT either by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the department at 206-684-ROAD (206-684-7623).
“Ever since we’ve launched the survey, I’ve been kind of obsessively looking at it,” he said, noting that roughly 1,500 responses were received during the first week the survey was live. “If somebody has an idea, reach out to us! We’ll see if we can make it happen.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: The Patio at Rainier Avenue South and South Ferdinand Street in Columbia City. (Photo: Shelley Morrison)
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