Portland’s Street Seats: Paving the Way for Small Business Success

April 21, 2017 • 8 min read
Byron Beck

Byron Beck

PDX Correspondent

Finding a place to park your car in many American cities is perplexing at best. Why does it seem like, when our cities are becoming increasingly packed with more and more people (and their vehicles), there are still major metropolises across the nation willing to remove parking spaces and turn them into parks? Many people—drivers, bikers and pedestrians—are even welcoming this change. It’s like a reverse version of Joni Mitchell’s classic song, “Yellow Taxi.” Cities are no longer “paving paradise and putting up parking lots.” It’s the opposite!

Have our cities gone mad? Not quite. They’ve just found ways to manage our thoroughfares without creating nasty snarl-ups both on and off the street.

Parklets, as defined by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, are “public seating platforms that convert curbside parking spaces into community spaces.” Parklets are typically applied to a city street where narrow or congested sidewalks prevent the installation of traditional sidewalk cafes, or where local property owners or residents see a need to expand the seating capacity and public space. Traditionally, parklets are the product of a partnership between a city and local businesses, residents, or neighborhood associations.

Parklets in Portland, Oregon

street-seats Courtesy of PBOT Active Transportation

“The idea of introducing parklets (in Portland) first came from the community,” said Dylan Rivera, Public Information Officer for Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, evidence that PBOT has a long history of trying to accommodate community-initiated ideas.

When Portland began its pilot program in 2012, parklets were already a success in cities like San Francisco and New York. Today parklets are in throughout the nation and internationally: Montreal, Vancouver, BC, Philadelphia, L.A. Seattle, San Jose and Boston.

An oasis in the midst of urban life goes by a different name in Portland.

Portland’s sidewalks are typically very narrow, 10 to 12 feet, which often doesn’t allow for both pedestrian space and outdoor chairs and tables,” said Rivera. “PBOT wanted to explore the idea of allowing additional space for people to enjoy sitting outside at cafés and restaurants. This could potentially provide benefits to not only Portland residents but also to our small business community.” Portland’s version of ‘parklets’ are less focused on creating parklike public seating, so the Bureau chose “Street Seats” as the program’s name.

In August 2012, PBOT launched the Street Seats pilot project in front of three local restaurants. They followed up with a community and business evaluation survey. The online response was overwhelmingly positive: 90-percent of businesses who completed the survey, “believed that the Street Seats program would benefit neighborhood businesses,” and 80-percent of residents surveyed, “felt that Street Seats positively impacted their street’s vitality.”

Oven & Shaker, co-owned by Cathy Whims, Ryan Magarian and Kurt Huffman, was one of the first restaurants to implement street seating in front of their Pearl District location. After witnessing San Francisco’s popular parklet program, Huffman went to the City of Portland and proposed that Portland try parklets.

The Beginning of Street Seats

street-seats Courtesy of PBOT Active Transportation

Huffman’s business partner, Whims, was trepidatious at first about the program. “Originally I was concerned it would alienate our neighbors for taking away parking and adding more people outside on the streets (Oven & Shaker tables seat four to six people),” said Whims. He worried about converting two parking spaces into outdoor seating. “It ended up being really well received and we’ve had no negative feedback from the neighbors.”

PBOT says that, overall, the Street Seats program was warmly welcomed into Portland, both from pedestrian advocates, as well as the restaurant community. However, like any project that includes auto parking removal, there were some groups that did come out against the program. Some feared that the program’s popularity would result in a large amount of on-street parking being removed throughout the City.

That didn’t happen. In fact, community group are hoping to set up more Street Seats throughout Portland. Two of the first three Street Seat pilot locations have been renewed since their 2012 installation. Today, PBOT says there are 14 Street Seat locations installed throughout the city.

Street Seats have been a boon for business, adding more uniqueness to a city already described as “weird.”

“Even without the ability to extend café seating into the new space (as is the case with three restaurant unrelated spaces that have street seats) these locations attract the eye and add interest and activity to the street,” said Rivera, who also points to PBOT partners who have helped to improve the program. “PBOT has had a successful partnership in the past with the American Institute of Architects in an annual design competition. This effort has added some fun, unique and whimsical designs to our streets.”

Streets seats in Portland come in all shapes and sizes, but must abide by a set of guidelines. PBOT directs applicants to submit a community support package that demonstrates adequate notification and support from their neighbors and neighborhood (more details can be found here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/554743). Street seats must have a desired minimum width of 6 feet (or the width of the parking lane). They generally entail the conversion of one or more parallel parking spaces, or 3–4 angled parking spaces, but may vary according to the site, context, and desired character of the installation. When a street seat space stretches the length of an entire curb, accessibility and sightlines must be taken into account.

The Future of Street Seats

street-seats Courtesy of PBOT Active Transportation

In Portland, many of the Street Seats are neighborhood landmarks and destinations. They reflect the character of the businesses that sponsor them and the neighborhood where they are located. A Street Seat in the Central Eastside Industrial area uses railroad crossing materials as part of its design. In the Alberta Arts District, there’s one with tall grasses and long, log-shaped wooden benches.

Street seats come under the jurisdiction of PBOT and not the parks department in Portland. “PBOT is responsible for managing our streets,” said Rivera. “Our public right of way covers more than a fourth of the land area of the city. That includes, streets, sidewalks, alleys and other land where people want to gather as a community. Making our streets more attractive, comfortable, and pleasant places is also a key goal for the Bureau.”

PBOT has demonstrated a commitment to improving Portland’s streets.

“As long as the design is thoughtful and they look nice, they’re great for the city,” said Whims. “We’ve personally done a lot to make ours have continuity with the design aesthetic of Oven & Shaker. Also, in a rainy climate like we have we need to absorb as much of the nice weather and outdoor seating as we can, while we can. In the rainy season, the whole structure packs up and we store it till the next year, and the street becomes parking again.”

For now, Street Seats in the downtown core are not being accepted. When the program was launched, Downtown area business organizations requested that their district be excluded. Requests for future Street Seats is largely coming from Portland’s Northwest, Northeast, and Southeast neighborhoods. PBOT plans to reach out to business associations outside of Portland’s central core to assess interest, as well as identify what barriers exist. “In some areas of town, the street speeds and land uses are not appropriate for outdoor seating on the street,” said Rivera. “However, there may be other design solutions or other placemaking types of projects that the Bureau can encourage in those neighborhoods.”

The Bureau is currently in the process of working to make community placemaking projects more attractive and accessible through the Livable Streets Strategy work. “Street Seats are one example of a suite of community placemaking programs and activities that PBOT encourages under our Livable Streets umbrella,” said Rivera. “Whether it’s for a block party, a fun run or a new public plaza, we want to make it easier for people to come together in our streets.”

It might begin with seats in the streets but it doesn’t end there. Portland’s vision and adopted planning documents include strong support for Livable Streets strategies. The Portland Plan calls for developing designs and programs for the community use of streets. The Draft 2035 Comprehensive Plan calls for designing, managing and repurposing our streets in order to enhance opportunities for streets to serve a variety of community functions. Other Livable Streets programs include street paintings, block parties, street fairs, and pedestrian plazas.

For now, though it’s time to hit the streets, and take a seat.

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