In the last decade, restaurants across Portland have taken their operations to the streets, setting up outdoor dining areas on the adjacent right-of-way. Portland's endeavor into outdoor dining initially began with the 2012 Street Seats pilot, a well-received program which enabled restaurant owners to convert parking spaces outside their businesses into street seating for customers. But it was only at the start of the pandemic—when businesses across the city took major financial hits after it was no longer safe to serve customers inside—that outdoor dining became truly ubiquitous.
In response to the health crisis, Portland's Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) began its Healthy Business Permitting Program in 2020, allowing restaurant owners to access free, temporary permits to expand their operations outside without requiring them to adhere to previous permit requirements. From there, outdoor dining exploded, and has since become a fixture on Portland's streets. PBOT has issued and renewed thousands of free permits since 2020, and countless customers have enjoyed the ability to eat and sip cocktails outside.
Last year, in a move heavily boosted by then-PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the city began taking steps to make COVID-era street dining permanent. In addition to the benefits outdoor dining has brought to the restaurant industry, Hardesty heralded the program as a way to "use our streets for people, not just automobiles."
But gone are the laissez-faire days of outdoor dining: This week, the Portland City Council voted to approve a report laying out new rules for the program, setting regulations for accessibility, safety, and creating a new fee structure to support the program long-term.
PBOT's Outdoor Dining Program report outlines intentions for the permanent initiative, stating that the bureau hopes the program will generate local business activity, develop space for community gathering, promote healthy and active lifestyles, build community identity, reimagine the potential for city streets, and activate underutilized space. Though some of the stated goals may seem outside of PBOT's scope as a transportation department, officials within the bureau say it's in the right hands.
"Streets make up about 40 percent of the land in our city," Art Pearce, PBOT's director of policy planning and projects, said at the August 23 City Council meeting. Pearce added that transportation planners are able to deliberate on what to do with so much street real estate, and "can make policy choices about what's best for the mobility needs... as well as the economic and civic life of the city."
"We think that this is an opportunity for PBOT and for the city to really show its values, particularly in bringing community back together after a number of hard years," Pearce said.
PBOT leaders like Pearce honed in on the program as a way to reallocate space away from cars and reimagine what Portland's streets could look like. During a time when local parking revenue is on the decline, vehicular crash rates are up, and the environmental impacts of personal car use are becoming more apparent, it's especially pertinent to look at how Portland's street space is utilized.
PBOT planners and community transportation advocates say they hope the program will change people's perceptions that roadways are only meant for vehicular throughput and encourage people to use active modes of transportation.
Restaurant owners also celebrated the outdoor dining program. Several people spoke up at the City Council meeting to say the Healthy Business program was one of the main reasons their restaurants were able to survive the pandemic.
Jessica Silverman is a partner at Grassa, a restaurant with three Portland locations. Silverman touted the benefits of the outdoor dining program with City Council.
"If not for quick pivots to the Healthy Business program...the Grassa location [downtown] likely would not have been able to survive the convergence of COVID and the vacancies downtown," Silverman said. "For food and beverage businesses, each additional seat we can offer guests increases revenue potential exponentially. On top of that, street-side visibility is one of the best forms of marketing."
Bryan Steelman, a partner at ¿Por Qué No? Taqueria, echoed Silverman's praises of the program.
"One of the few bright and innovative positives during [the pandemic] was PBOT having the flexibility and courage to open up the Healthy Business permits. This was the type of progressive thinking we needed from our city," Steelman said. "Now, most of the residents in Portland love the feel of the increased vibrancy that the street seats bring to our city, and we need assurance that this program will last into the future."
However, with such relaxed outdoor dining regulations over the last several years, some problems have emerged. Notably, some of the structures used for outdoor seating aren't accessible to people in wheelchairs or with other mobility needs, and they can also create hazards for people attempting to pass on the sidewalk. If the program becomes permanent, it will have design rules in place to change that.
The new Outdoor Dining program would require businesses to place seating areas in a manner that "preserves pedestrian access, visibility of traffic control, sight lines of pedestrian crossings, and accommodation of truck turning movements." It would also require businesses seeking permit renewal to build accessible seating areas using platforms for easy access from the sidewalk.
The Outdoor Dining report also lays out considerations for fees to sustain the program. Though businesses didn't have to pay for permits in 2020, 2021, and most of 2022, PBOT launched a 15-month permit cycle in 2022 that charged $150 for an annual application fee and a $500 parking space fee to make up for lost parking revenue. The new program will have a different fee schedule, which City Council will hear next month. PBOT plans to subsidize a portion of the fees for the 2024 permit cycle to "assist small businesses as they continue to recover" from the pandemic. They also plan to create a financial assistance program "to meet the needs of both new and legacy installations."
Restaurant owners praised the fee suggestions, saying a progressive pricing structure will make it possible for more businesses to participate in the program and ensure their street seating installations are comfortable and up to code.
City Council members voted unanimously at the August 23 meeting to approve the Outdoor Dining report and are expected to vote to make the program permanent next month. PBOT is also working on a permanent Street Plaza program—another pandemic-era street innovation—with an advisory group meeting regularly to develop a plan for creating more long-term car-free spaces around Portland.
"The choices that we make about how we allocate street space are part of... how we are creating a culture and a community," Pearce said. "This is an opportunity for us to produce spaces and opportunities for community to come together, [finding] connection and resilience as we remake Portland in this post-pandemic era."