On January 6, the Seattle Department of Transportation issued Dave Meinert, owner of the 5 Point Cafe in Belltown, a permit to build a 16-by-22-foot outdoor area outside of his establishment, extending into Tilikum Place—a small park off Denny Way and Cedar Street with benches and a paved thoroughfare surrounding a large fountain featuring Chief Sealth.
The park resembles more of a plaza than a park (in fact, SDOT says aside from the fountain, the space technically isn't a park at all—it's an old road reconstituted as public space). But for the last decade or more, nearby residents and business owners have lobbied the city and raised money to beautify the space. They view it as their neighborhood park.
Which is why Belltown condo residents and business owners are appealing SDOT to stop the 5 Point from adding 10 tables of fenced-off outdoor bar seating to Tilikum Place. They argue that outdoor seating will make the area too raucous and noisy for nearby residents, it will deter tourists from visiting the businesses that border the park, and it will
discourage homeless people from bathing in and drinking around the Chief Sealth fountain encroach on precious downtown park space.
"There was $100,000 dollars of community effort, of time and money put into the park not very long ago," says Paul Dormann, owner of the Tilikum Place Cafe, a neighbor and critic of the 5 Point's plan. "We've had a neighborhood committed to this park becoming a park for many years, not a fenced-off commercial space. We want grass in there."
Brian de Place, a street use manager with SDOT, says that the 5 Point appeal is unusual. Among the scores of permits the department has granted over the past two years, it's only received three permit appeals. But the appeals process is bound to become more regular as the city, with its broken budget, encourages businesses to become private stewards of these public spaces—while residents and business competitors step up to block them.
De Place says that the city is encouraging more outdoor cafe space to make neighborhoods feel more friendly, walkable, and safe. "There’s a push to get more of these spaces activated," says de Place. "Of course we have to balance the private desires of business with public mobility. That's a discussion we're having right now."
For his part, Meinert argues that having outdoor seating at Tilikum Place will help activate a dead zone that is rarely used as more than an open-air bar for homeless people.
"It’s not like condo owners are out there playing Frisbee," says Meinert. "They never go to the park. Meanwhile, all over the world, people do this. The idea of central plazas is that around the outside of them, you have restaurants and outdoor seating. The inside, people walk through, it’s activated. Right now, Tilikum Place isn’t used by anyone. Basically, a lot of homeless people use it to drink and sleep in. People get assaulted, like my employees, probably once a month." Meinert says he cut the size of his outdoor seating area and limited its hours of operation from 3:00 to 10:00 p.m. in order to respond to critics' concerns. "They don't want to work with me—their position is just 'we don't want outdoor seating.'"
Some of the appellants arguments are strikingly insincere and smack of NIMBYism. For example, the residents of a nearby condo building—which is located within earshot of the city's main parade route and the monorail—complain that the bar (or, rather, having people talking outside at tables) will be too noisy.
De Place says SDOT is organizing a meeting between 5 Point Cafe supporters and those opposed to the outdoor seating plan to see if further compromises can be reached. But that amounts to a formality at this point—the permit's already been issued. "We fundamentally agree with the decision to have a sidewalk café there."
In 2008, the city council streamlined the sidewalk cafe permitting process to make it easier for bars and restaurants to cordon off a bit of sidewalk for a few tables. Now, instead of a nine-month process involving multiple city departments, bars and restaurants can be awarded a sidewalk cafe permit in three-to-five weeks from SDOT. "We've seen businesses really start to take advantage of it in the past year," de Place says.
Meinert says his goal is to open up the 5 Point's outdoor seating by March.