You may have noticed wooden side-walk extensions with attached tables (and perhaps even a covering) begin to dot Portland sidewalks last time you visited the city.
Through the pandemic, outdoor dining has become popularized as a safe(r) way to dine and socialize. Now, it’s looking like parklets — ‘street seats’ as Portland and New York City call them — might be here for good.
St. Helens joined the growing trend of parklets, street seats, and sidewalk dining in Feb. 2015 — but the process isn’t exactly easy, according to local restaurant Tap into Wine owner Marci Sanders.
Sanders said she and owner of neighboring Columbia County Bistro Kayleigh Stano applied for a permit in early July and are waiting to be approved.
In order to receive a parklet permit in St. Helens, the parklet design must meet city requirements. Parklets can only be constructed in nonresidential areas where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour or less; they need to be designed to the city’s specifications, including a platform under the parklet that is flush with the sidewalk.
Local Brewery Running Dogs already has their parklet, though it doesn’t technically meet the city’s current requirements without a platform. St. Helens Communications Officer Crystal King said Running Dogs received a special approval to construct their parklet without a deck.
“They submitted their original application over a year ago, so their approval process was not a quick one,” King explained. “The Planning Department made an exception to the decking requirement because at the time of review, there were extensive COVID-19 restrictions related to indoor dining.”
Running Dogs also does not have a normal curb exposure outside their business. The curb is less than 1” in some areas in front of the business while a normal curb exposure is closer to 5,” which King noted makes it difficult to build a platform flush with the sidewalk.
The owners of Running Dogs were unavailable for an interview prior to press time.
The city created the parklet permit in order to encourage post-pandemic economic growth for businesses. “Part of the City’s goal in promoting parklets recently was to support restaurants and other industries that were hit hard and struggling to remain open due to COVID-19 restrictions,” King said.
Still, Running Dogs’ parklet acted as a test parklet for the city and neighboring businesses, which Sanders said is making it difficult for her and Stano to get their permit. The city requires notification of the parklet application to all abutting businesses before the permit will be approved. If neighboring businesses object to the parklet application, then the business must wait for the city council to decide whether to approve the parklet permit or not.
“They’re going to notice everybody on this block, including Roof, and apparently Roof isn’t happy with [the parklet],” Sanders said of the upstairs restaurant in the same building as the Columbia County Bistro.
Roof owner Marsha Lee told the Chronicle she hadn’t been notified of Tap into Wine and Columbia County Bistro’s application yet, but she had voiced her concern about Running Dogs’ parklet across the way early on, taking parking space from her customers and the customers of other businesses.
“Parking is a premium down there as it is, and we have older people who need close parking,” Lee said. And with COVID-19 seeming to be less of a concern for people and pandemic restrictions lifting, Lee said, “There’s no need to have the outdoor seating.”
When asked if she would contest Sanders and Stano’s permit application, Lee told the Chronicle, “Potentially, yes. If the city isn’t going to offer up parking spaces for the businesses, then they probably shouldn’t be taking up parking from those businesses.”
Without Roof’s (and other neighboring businesses’) approval, Sanders said her permit will struggle through the system for a while. Currently, Sanders is working on a new draft of her and Stano’s parklet design because their original lacked Ramps for two entrances (4’ wide minimum), since their parklet will also not be flush with the curb, railing along the street side to block entry where the parklet is uneven with the curb, and they needed to downsize their design by limiting the parklet to three parking spaces.
Stano was unavailable for an interview but said, “Marci and I have the same opinions on the parklet, the city, and the unfairness, and uneven expectations between Running Dogs and other businesses applying.”
The parklet permit has presented a difficult question for the city and businesses.
“There isn’t enough parking. In Portland, it’s a different situation,” Sanders said, noting that Portland has more parking options and a few parklets won’t limit businesses and customers to the degree that removing parking in old town St. Helens will. Plus, “they have public transit there. We don’t have public transit here,” Sanders added. There is a public transit bus in St. Helens, but the bus line does not run down to the old town section of the city.
Sanders said she still hopes she can get her parklet permit and construct the sidewalk dining spot within the next few weeks, but the summer is slipping by, and Sanders may not receive her permit until at the earliest August, given the city council’s meeting schedule.
“People don’t want to sit out in the rain. I’m not going to cover it,” she said, but her and Stano would still use the parklet in the fall when the weather is still temperate.
“It’s frustrating that the business owners are just left to have to address all the issues, as if there’s anything I can do about parking. I get the opposition. I think we should use this as an opportunity to try to get to city to address it. Now, for if they’re going to offer this temporary permit, let’s have some temporary summer parking, that goes beyond the event framework,” Sanders said, referencing the waterfront parking that is reserved for summer concert events.
According to King, St. Helens is currently working on a Road and Utility Extension Project to “create hundreds of new parking spaces for the Riverfront District.”
While the City has no current plans to open the vacant waterfront property during the day for parking, King said a solution to the parking dilemma is the “large public parking lot which offers free parking immediately behind the businesses on the west side of South 1st Street.”
King noted that there is also on street parking available on Strand Street, Cowlitz Street, Plaza Square, and St. Helens Street, all within half a block or a block of South 1st Street.