EDMONDS — To the owners of Salish Sea Brewing, the outdoor dining structures were like a lifesaver, a way to save their business and keep workers employed as the pandemic ravaged the restaurant industry.
“I kept my entire staff on board,” said Jeff Barnett, who owns the brewery with his wife, Erika.
Outdoor “streateries” were permitted as a stopgap in downtown Edmonds during the pandemic. They now dot the streets at 17 businesses, often in street-side parking spaces.
But should they be allowed to stick around another year? That’s a highly politicized question in Edmonds.
To Fred Milani, the owner of Girardi’s restaurant, they are “shantytowns, much short of what you see in the favelas of Rio or the streets of Tijuana, but this is just the beginning.”
Barnett, Milani and more than a dozen others spoke for about an hour Tuesday night at an Edmonds City Council meeting as council members weighed whether to extend the program. Many people at the public hearing were in favor of keeping the structures, and “from the sales tax data we know the vast majority of downtown retail businesses have profited while streateries have been here,” Mayor Mike Nelson said in a statement.
Tommy Nickens, general manager of the fish-and-chips restaurant Market, told The Daily Herald that street-side seating has also “drastically” helped his business.
“It’s just — it’s a great idea,” he said. “People seem to love it. They get used very often, so it would definitely be a bummer to see them go.”
Edmonds residents Kristy Sanden and Sandy Fahey said they frequent the streateries even when it’s cold.
“Because of the pandemic, we appreciate an alternative to sitting inside,” Fahey said.
They both said they would be open to making the street-side dining spaces more permanent.
“I think it adds a benefit to the smaller businesses,” Fahey said.”And more options for people. So I like them.”
Over 4,000 people participated in a recent city survey. Results released Monday showed about half of respondents would likely dine elsewhere or visit downtown less if Edmonds got rid of the streateries. About 67% of respondents had regularly or occasionally used the dining structures, and 56% of respondents said streateries enhance downtown.
A handful of residents showed up to Tuesday’s meeting to argue that streateries are dangerous and ugly.
“Propane canisters sitting right next to the tables are bombs ready to blow in case a car swerves to avoid an accident,” Milani said.
One Edmonds resident used her public comment period to read comments from a recent My Edmonds News story, where residents likened the outdoor seating to “‘Hooverville’ shacks of the Depression” and “sheds.”
“Aesthetics are subjective,” said Councilmember Laura Johnson, who added that she supports reimagining public spaces.
Meanwhile, former Edmonds City Council candidate Janelle Cass posted a video of herself walking Main Street around 9 p.m. Saturday. She points to empty tables — some in front of closed businesses — and suggests the dining space could be more useful as parking. She argues the dining structures aren’t safe because of their proximity to passing cars.
The council received about 90 emails from residents about streateries in recent weeks, council President Susan Paine said. The main concern, she said, was parking.
Edmonds resident Sue Oskowski told The Daily Herald the only downside she sees is the loss of parking, but she’s in support of allowing streateries, at least until COVID-19 wanes.
Some residents worried the program has left out restaurants outside of the “bowl” and downtown, as well as retailers.
Patrick Doherty, director of community services, shared city stats that showed a 110% increase in downtown merchant sales revenue since 2019. He said Edmonds restaurants serve as an anchor to draw in tourists.
Liz Morgan, owner of the FIELD flower and gift shop downtown, said she would support a committee to address the concerns of merchants and residents.
Councilmember Will Chen suggested the council create a task force to look at long-term solutions. He said he supported extending the streateries in the short term.
Paine said she anticipates the streateries will survive, but they may look a little different.
Dawn Vinberg, owner of Engel’s Pub, said she would support more-permanent outdoor structures.
Down the street at Salish Sea, Jeff Barnett agreed.
So did others.
“I would like to see the city of Edmonds leave it. There’s an issue of parking … but other than that, it’d be great,” said Tim Talley, manager at the Rusty Pelican. “Especially when they close down the streets during the summer — it has that more community sense feel. … I’m not a business owner. But my viewpoint is I think it’s been great.”
Streateries were first permitted as a temporary program in August 2020, and the City Council passed an ordinance in December 2020 to formally allow the streateries through Dec. 31, 2021.
Businesses must obtain $110 street use permits from the city to use a portion of the public right of way for outdoor dining. The permits are good for up to one year, and they can be renewed for three to six months.
The program allows up to 20 streateries in the city.
Other cities, including Everett, Langley and Anacortes, have no permit fee for cafe seating in the public right of way, according to a city presentation.
A decision, and more discussion, is expected at next week’s council meeting.