Councilmember Strauss on Ballard Avenue NW, which he proposes shutting to traffic and repurposing for outdoor dining.
Councilmember Strauss is working with the city on a pilot program that would shut Ballard Avenue NW to car traffic on the weekends and turn into a "cafe street." Courtesy of Dan Strauss

Cities around the world are getting creative with zoning and letting restaurants expand into streets, because outdoor transmission is rare, and letting businesses occupy at fuller capacity—by putting a whole bunch of tables and chairs outside—will give them a better shot of surviving this crisis.

Dan Strauss says that when he read this Stranger piece yesterday, that was not the first time this idea has been floated. "This is a proposal that I've heard from the small business I've been working with," he says, adding that "small businesses on Ballard Ave NW reached out weeks ago, and we've been working with city departments to develop a pilot program that could be rolled out as King County enters Phase 2."

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He stresses, "We need to be ready to use our public space and public right-of-ways in a way that promotes our small businesses, protects public health, and increases the ability for pedestrians to use our public right-of-ways. And cafe streets are absolutely one of these options."

If the phrase "cafe streets" fills your head with thoughts of Amsterdam or Paris, you are not alone.

And if there was ever a time to close certain streets across the city to allow restaurants to do business outside, wouldn't that time be right now, at the start of summer, during a crisis that threatens restaurants disproportionately compared to other kinds of businesses?

Why Ballard Avenue NW as a good place to pilot this idea? Strauss says that it is "a street with a high density of small businesses and restaurants, and is already a pedestrianized space."

City departments that would need to sign off on something like this include the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), the Department of Construction and Inspections, the Office of Economic Development, the police department, the fire department, and public health. Every one of those departments except public health reports to the mayor.

"I know these departments are working on this," Strauss tells The Stranger.

The mayor does not appear to be a leader on this issue, at least as far as The Stranger can tell. (That said, the mayor's communications staff does not seem to enjoy communicating with the press, and only gives information to The Stranger in a tight-lipped, grudging way.) The mayor's office, reached for comment on this issue, has only told us that they are "looking into" it.

Because the mayor is the boss of all of those aforementioned departments, bold leadership from her would significantly move the dial.

Strauss's office worked to get the Ballard Farmers Market reopened about a month ago, which was another no-brainer, because farmers markets are literally the safest way to shop for groceries right now (much safer than walking into a cavernous indoor grocery store).

Advocating for the Ballard Farmers Market taught Strauss a few things that he thinks would need to apply to cafe streets as well. For example: "Police and fire need to be able to move through the space." As with the farmers market, he says, there is going to have to be a dedicated lane on the street left open for the fire department.

There are other issues that would still need to be worked out. For instance, how to protect servers and other restaurant employees, and how to allocate a fair number of tables and chairs to restaurants, and how to maintain sidewalk space for people with mobility challenges.

"Those are some of the details that we're ironing out right now," Strauss says. "At the end of the day we have to protect public health. We know outdoor transmission is rare, we just have to make sure everything is sanitized to make sure that folks aren't touching things that other folks have touched."

And he raises another issue as well. "There is an equity issue for restaurants that abut streets that are ready for cafe streets. When I look at Ballard Ave, we have a density of restaurants that would be ready to roll out their tables and chairs. And then we have other great restaurants that are only a block away, like Señor Moose, that are not on a street that's appropriate for a cafe street. Señor Moose is on Leary Way, a busy street. So we just have to make sure that when we repurpose our public right-of-way that we are able to do so in an equitable fashion, so restaurants that are a block away from a cafe street will have a similar opportunity to be successful as a business on a cafe street."

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Don't you just love when he says "cafe street"?

His openness to cafe streets this summer in District 6 is not necessarily confined to Ballard Ave NW. "We are currently reaching out to small businesses in Fremont, Phinney, Greenwood, and other neighborhoods, because what's important for me is that neighborhoods decide for themselves what is important. The reason that this proposal [to convert Ballard Avenue NW into a cafe street] came to my office is because I was supporting small businesses in their work, so they knew to bring me that request."

The fact that it was coming directly from neighborhood business owners is what inspired Strauss to act. "It's important to be grassroots. Bottom up. To make sure small businesses are getting the support that they need and want."