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Spokane planning looser rules so restaurants can expand seating into streets, sidewalks

At the Elk public House, employee Nate Geddes hands Postmates food delivery driver Austin Kruger an order on Monday, May 18, 2020. Restaurant owners say they will still struggle to make a profit when they’re allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. Councilwoman Lori Kinnear’s proposal? Increase their footprint. Kinnear is introducing a set of proposals that would allow restaurants to more easily expand outdoor seating. (Colin Mulvany / Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

When they reopen for dine-in service, restaurants in Spokane will have to seat guests at tables spread further apart than normal.

So the Spokane City Council wants to make it easier for the restaurants to spread out, too.

Spokane eateries could soon face fewer hurdles to receive the city’s permission to set up tables in their parking lots, on the sidewalk and even on the street just as summer arrives.

City officials are considering allowing the partial or full closure of a street where businesses are clustered, according to a series of proposals spearheaded by Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who represents the South Hill.

“It feels like something we’re doing that’s positive to help our businesses, and that’s what’s got me excited,” Kinnear said. “The doom and gloom, everybody is tired of it, quite frankly.”

The Elk, along with its neighbors in Browne’s Addition, plans to be the first restaurant to apply for a street closure, according to Marshall Powell, general manager of The Elk. It hopes to close a 150- to 200-foot section of Cannon Street south of its intersection with Pacific Avenue, allowing restaurants like The Elk, El Que, Italia Trattoria, Cafe Cappri and Pacific Pizza to expand outward.

It’s not intended to last forever, Powell stressed.

“I’ve only envisioned this as a replacement for lost occupancy for restaurants in the area,” Powell said.

The loosening of city regulations is an effort to aid businesses that, even as they’re allowed to reopen, face the burden of adhering to restrictions aimed at protecting public health and limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Those limitations, restaurant owners have said, will make it challenging to earn a profit.

“Fifty percent occupancy isn’t going to do a whole lot, but it will be better than nothing obviously,” Powell said.

Against that backdrop of Spokane restaurants trying to figure out ways to comply with the rules and somehow settle on a partial reopening strategy that might make financial sense, there’s increasing activity by other restaurants and bars to flout the law and reopen early.

To the east in Spokane Valley, for example, several restaurants declared their defiance and are reopening.

As Spokane leaders plead to enter Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington reopening plan, the City Council could take action to lessen past regulatory challenges imposed on restaurants and retailers, perhaps as early as Thursday.

The council’s Public Infrastructure, Environment, and Sustainability committee discussed the regulations at a special meeting on Monday.

Under the governor’s plan, restaurants are allowed to reopen in Phase 2 but must operate at a seating capacity of 50%, limiting the size of parties to five or less, and seating groups of guests at least 6 feet apart.

Outdoor seating will be subject to the same requirements as indoor seating under the governor’s plan, but a larger footprint would mean more patrons allowed at a single restaurant.

To temporarily close or partially shut down a street, businesses will apply for a special events permit.

Kinnear said council staff members are working to identify clusters of businesses that may want to apply for a special events permit and shut down part of their street. Safety precautions would have to be put in place, and the permit would not be available where road construction is planned, Kinnear noted.

Powell said he does not anticipate substantial pushback to the closure from nearby residents, noting the neighborhood council in Browne’s Addition has always been “amazingly supportive of us.”

“There’s no music, there’s no concerts, we’re just putting tables out there,” Powell said.

An important factor will be whether the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board allows the sale of alcohol on the street, Powell added. Restaurants typically rely on alcohol sales to pad their low profit margins.

The City Council is considering changes to the way it issues permits through two separate programs, one for “streateries” and parklets, and the other for sidewalk cafes.

A streatery and parklet are similar in concept, but different in functionality. They are both gathering spaces that temporarily occupy into as many as two public parking spaces or a loading area, but a streatery is operated by a sole restaurant, while a parklet is open to public use.

Sidewalk cafes, which also require a permit from the city, allow a restaurant to spread onto the adjacent sidewalk.

Kinnear hopes to permanently strike down the requirement that an application for a streatery be subject to an administrative hearing, which is intended to offer an opportunity for public comment.

“Right now it doesn’t make sense because in the last two years nobody has attended,” Kinnear said. “It’s just another hoop that makes it more difficult for businesses.”

Instead, public comment will be collected by city staff as they simultaneously review the application, reducing the lag time between application and approval. The council could also change the law to allow businesses to apply for a variance if they do not meet all of the criteria.

Short-term changes to city law could include allowing sidewalk cafes to stretch into parking lots adjacent to restaurants, which could require fewer spaces for cars while the number of guests inside is limited.

The city plans to craft a survey for businesses to learn more about their needs as they reopen.

In addition to the proposals outlined by Kinnear and city officials, Councilman Michael Cathcart advocated that the city waive the permit fees for sidewalk cafes, parklets and streateries. The application fee and review fee amount to $350 for a first-time applicant.

“I just don’t think there should be fees they have to pay and a big, cumbersome process,” Cathcart said.

Councilwoman Kate Burke agreed with Cathcart on the issue of permit fees, and also stressed that the process be made available to retailers, such as a clothing store or antique shop, that could benefit from placing merchandise outside their store.

Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, lauded the council for considering action that would provide city businesses with more options. He said the Partnership has flagged concerns about the city’s permitting processes in the past.

Though he said the adjustments would probably have a “limited application” – it won’t help a business on the second story of a building, for example – Richard said “it all helps.”

“It depends on the business, but we’re certainly hearing from some businesses that they can’t function at 50%. It is going to be tough going ahead,” Richard said.