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Capitol Hill sidewalks get bigger: New rules make it easier to have outside cafe seating

Under new rules approved by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, more Seattle restaurants will be able to open up outdoor seating on the sidewalk in front of their buildings meaning some of Capitol Hill’s more pinched sidewalks might have space for a cafe, after all.

While sidewalk cafes were previously only allowed if the sidewalk adjacent to the establishment was available for tables and chairs, many sidewalks in the city are too skinny to allow seating without impeding pedestrian accessibility. The new rules will allow businesses to set up sidewalk seating along the curb in pockets between signs and tree wells with the sidewalk running between the building and the seating area. The result could be even more Capitol Hill restaurants adding sidewalk seating — and, perhaps equally important for the Hill’s economy — some retail spaces suddenly penciling out for a new restaurant.

It almost makes Seattle sound downright cosmopolitan.

“It makes Seattle in line with other cities like Montreal and San Francisco” that have been active in supporting sidewalk cafes, said Dave Meinert, an owner of Big Mario’s (a CHS advertiser) who is a frequent advocate for liberalizing the rules under which Seattle food and drink establishments operate. While the new rules probably won’t affect any of Meinert’s businesses — he’s already won his long-running effort to add outside seating at his 5 Point bar in Belltown and he won’t be changing Big Mario’s outside seating into anything but a takeout hangout — he sees it as a promising sign that the city is helping restaurants out. “It’s great to see something coming out of the city that is actually pro-business.”

The rules should help restaurants that can take advantage of them stay in business. More seats means more potential inventory and more inventory, if you’re doing it right, can mean an increase in revenue and, hopefully, profitability.

In order for a restaurant to start a curbside sidewalk cafe on the Hill, there would need to be on-street parking in front of the new seating — presumably parked cars form a protective barrier to street traffic — with three feet of distance from the curb to allow cars to open doors. All areas around the new seating would need to be ADA compliant, and there would also need to be at least five feet of clearance from the building, curb ramps, bike racks, bus stop zones, parking meters, etc.

Given that framework, the situations on the Hill where a restaurant could take advantage of the new rules might be as rare as, well, places on the Hill where the new street food zones might actually be able to be created.

But there are stretches where the rules could come into play including around the oft-maligned Joule Building where the Broadway sidewalk widens out.

One other area that could be interesting to consider is the development that will occur around the Broadway light rail station. There, ground level retail space is likely along some portions of the property and sidewalks could have a little more room for maneuvering.

But another important example of where this kind of change might hit home on the Hill can be found in the 600 block of E Pike. Unlike much of the surrounding Pike/Pine area, this area — gasp! — is currently restaurant-less. Under the old rules, cafe seating in front of the building would have been too small to comfortably seat customers. The new ruleset would allow a restaurant to utilize the space between the tree wells, adding valuable seating an helping the restaurant eek out a profit or at least break even. That kind of flexibility could change the game for some of the empty spaces on the Hill and help some of the properties left out of the current Capitol Hill food+drink boom to join the rush.

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At this point, the new rules do not yet allow for sidewalk cafes in space that would replace on-street parking, as San Francisco has started doing (see also this video) — but they could be a first step.

“We haven’t gotten that good yet,” said Meinert. But he said it’s something the city should look into. “We’re saying food trucks can use street parking space, so why not let brick and mortar use it that way?”

We’re not quite at La Rambla, yet — but we’re closer.

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16 thoughts on “Capitol Hill sidewalks get bigger: New rules make it easier to have outside cafe seating

  1. One of my biggest complaints about Seattle is the utter lack of sidewalk cafes and outdoor seating! The “weather” argument is bullshit because Vancouver has the same weather that we do and the whole city is absolutely covered in outdoor seating!

  2. Even under the current rules there are those establishments that allow their patrons to block so much of the sidewalk that pedestrian flow is restricted. I can deal with these rules if there is a physical barricade separating the seating from the walk. Even a rope barrier will do. So, here’s the deal—restaurants that tolerate the seating area drifting don’t get my money.

    Please join me

  3. You had to leave 5′ or 6′ (depending on location – downtown being 6′) between tree wells in the OLD rules – so whats different?

  4. I do think our weather is a factor working against this concept, because there are very few days from October to June when this kind of seating would be used. However, there are other reasons too…such as trying to enjoy a meal and a conversation as noisy, sometimes-smelly cars/buses pass closely by.

    I notice that Julia’s Restaurant, at Broadway & Harrison, does not have their sidewalk area (on the south side) open this summer…that was one of the nicest outdoor spaces, with lots of sun, and relatively quiet. Maybe it’s not cost-effective for a restaurant owner to maintain such spaces? (or maybe the construction noise across the street has something to do with it?).

  5. I like the idea but it will end up making it harder to walk down the sidewalk.

    Also: Sitting next to a parking area? When the car’s running it will be really smelly. Of course all the non-smokers will have no worries. It may be smelly car exhaust but at least it aint a cig. I hate cigs! I’d rather sit in an inclosed room with a car running and die in 10 minutes than have to put up with those devil cigarettes.

  6. i wouldn’t exactly prefer death to smelling cigs, but i see where you are coming from. ever since the indoor smoking ban, sure…it is much nicer to go out for a drink. but, it is now so irritating to just walk through the arrogant zombie-esque crowds of smokers choking the sidewalk outside most bars and restaurants. this will only make the way narrower.

    i would like this more, if there were better enforcement of no smoking near business doors or windows.

    hell, the lookout on bellevue actually puts out ashtrays on their sidewalk tables now.

  7. So the Washington State Liquor Control Board approved of the plan! Good for them and screw them. The state really needs to downsize the power of this unnecessary political entity. Their job should just be accounting of liquor sales and enforcement. Approving changes that are implied to elected legislative bodies, hell no! The WSLCB can be removed from these kind of decisions. They have way to much power than they should!
    As far as congestion, I worked on Capitol Hill for years and left the car at home, utilizing bus service. I usually wasn’t fit to drive after done working and hanging out. I think this applies to most people. Go ahead with the alfresco and screw parking concerns. Very generous bus/taxi services available on the hill! You probably shouldn’t be driving anyway!

  8. I’m less concerned with the outdoor restaurant/bar smoking (it’s just a fact of life since the smoking ban) than the customer drift. Bar/restaurants might have penned in seating on the sidewalks, but people congregate on the whole expanse of the sidewalks, making some of the sidewalks very hard to maneuver. I just don’t see 5-6′ of clear sidewalk on paper panning out that way in real life.

    I’d be more in favor of encouraging restaurants to have patios out back than on the sidewalks. Nicer for the patrons (no car exhaust in your pasta), nicer for the nieghborhood.

  9. I love the idea. The appeal to me is that it feels very European and dare I say, romantic. I like having a beverage and treat in the open air, people watching and saying hello to friends and neighbors. I’ll sit outside on a cloudy winter day when it isn’t raining and enjoy it then too. So yeah, appealing, very appealing.