City launches Curbside Cafés and Markets Pilot Program

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New effort seeks to expand city’s Sidewalk Café Program

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

With the coronavirus having hit small businesses hard over the past several months, Tacoma City Council Members Robert Thoms and Kristina Walker are working to help them recoup some losses and perhaps bring a new aspect to how their business is done from now on.

On June 12, the city launched the Curbside Cafés and Markets pilot program, an extension of the city’s Sidewalk Café Program. Curbside café/markets, also known as streateries or parklets, are similar to sidewalk cafés but are also located in parking spaces in the right-of-way. This new pilot program allows for restaurants, diners and cafés to take a portion of their services outside in order to serve more customers but still be in keeping with Gov. Inslee’s Washington Safe Start Plan and its Phase 2 requirements under which Pierce County is now operating. Retail businesses are also invited to apply and use areas of the right-of-way to expand their ability to serve customers.

The city is waiving application fees, street use fees and the cost of on-street parking related to the pilot program. Tacoma Venues and Events and Public Works are partnering to provide railings, as availability allows, to those businesses that would like to use them instead of providing their own. A permit for the Curbside Café and Market Pilot Program can accommodate temporary structures such as tables, chairs, planters and shade coverings.

Tacoma City Council Member Robert Thoms.

“The Sidewalk Café Program has been extremely successful in Tacoma and has allowed businesses and community to activate public space,” said Thoms. “I sought this expansion to help stabilize our great local restaurants after the Stay Home, Stay Healthy Order. It is more important than ever that we continue to find ways to be a good partner to our entrepreneurs.” 

As executive director of Downtown On the Go, Council Member Kristina Walker got involved in the project since a big part of its work involves the use of public spaces around the city. 

“It feels connected to my work and something I am interested in,” she said, noting that the pilot project is an example of the strength and resiliency that public-private partnerships can achieve. “I also have a great interest in making sure the employees are safe, too. I think it’s great that we can all enjoy our restaurants at this point, but for those frontline essential workers who are either cooking or serving in those restaurants, we need to make sure we’re protecting their health as well. This allows for fewer people to be inside the building and keep people more safe.”

The success of the program will rely on feedback from business owners informing the city of whether it works for them and what improvements can be made to make it even more successful. 

“It certainly won’t work for every restaurant in the city, but because there are so many businesses in town, we said why don’t we put it out there, see how many businesses apply, and it will inform us of where the biggest opportunities are and where the biggest challenges are,” Thoms said. “Right now, we’re telling them that during Phase 2 and 3, here’s the capacity that you can have indoors and here’s a new opportunity for you. Let us know if you want to do it.”

Walker said that the pilot program allows restaurants to make quick changes that help support their operation today. “The information is all in one place so it’s easy to find, and businesses are able to give it a try in this COVID environment and see how things work.” 

Tacoma City Council Member Kristina Walker.

Feedback from business owners will also provide the city with information on areas where existing infrastructure prohibits or unnecessarily challenges business to serve customers outside. 

“The trick is going to be businesses pushing on it to say, ‘Here is really what the street looks like from an infrastructure perspective. Here’s how close we are or aren’t from existing infrastructure,’ and that will inform us of where we as a city should be investing more in infrastructure,” as Thoms explained. 

“We know that our sidewalks in Tacoma are not consistent, so some restaurants sit at a sidewalk that has a huge amount of space and they can easily put tables and chairs out front,” Walker said. “But some need to expand into the roadway and we want to make sure they do that safely so that pedestrians and wheelchairs can still get by on the sidewalk. This gives people options depending on what their street looks like in front of their restaurant.”

With the pilot program being brand new, applicants will work with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to make sure that they are in compliance with city and state laws and ordinances. Ultimately, Thoms and Walker want to erase these steps and establish a “one-stop shop” for applicants.

“We want to do all that vetting so the business doesn’t have to deal with two or three different agencies,” Thoms said. City staff is working on this right now. “They’re working to make it very easy.”

Thoms noted that some business owners may well find that adding an outside area for customers enhances their business model such that the owners may want to invest in additional structures. Thoms used the Matador restaurant as an example. Their outdoor area started with just a railing, tables and chairs and later added additional amenities like awnings and heaters. “They’ve proven that having those extra seats outside was worth the investment of making it more ‘hardened,’” as Thoms put it. 

“Come try it. The city wants to help you try to recoup and serve our community as best as possible during this trying time.”

Applications are being accepted at TacomaPermits.org.

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