How cities are using ‘streateries’ to help restaurants recover
As cities gradually reopen after COVID-19 lockdowns, restaurants may become one of the most visible signs of the comeback. That’s because a growing number of cities, from Cincinnati to Orlando, are letting restaurants serve customers in a very public place: right in the street.
The strategy is aimed at giving these businesses a better shot at recovery. Restaurants and bars in the U.S. shed a staggering 5.5 million jobs in the month of April. By letting them temporarily take over parking lanes or even roadways closed to traffic, cities are making it possible for restaurants to boost customer capacity while keeping tables at least six feet apart for physical distancing.
How to do all of this safely was the topic of a recent webinar hosted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, or NACTO. Leaders from Tampa, Fla., and Jersey City, N.J., shared how they are implementing or planning to create “streateries.” NACTO also introduced a new resource that synthesizes the emerging ways cities are creatively using streets during the pandemic.
While Tampa’s experiment (known as “Lift Up Local”) has been up and running only for a few weeks, and Jersey City’s plan awaits the governor’s OK, there were at least six lessons for city leaders to consider:
Make it easy on the restaurant owners. Tampa is waiving the usual needs for a permit and fees associated with sidewalk dining; the city has also “bagged” a number of parking meters, at the city’s expense, in order to create room for tables. Everything restaurant owners need to know is in a guidebook the city drafted, and there’s a telephone hotline for them to call with questions or feedback. “This is a program that’s intended to support the business rather than provide a lot of additional requirements on them,” explained Tampa’s Chief Transportation Planning Engineer, Danni Jorgenson.
It’s possible to move fast. In Tampa, the idea to allow eating in the streets came up on a Friday a few weeks ago. By the following Monday, city leaders were implementing it. In Jersey City, previous work on turning street parking into “parklets” is helping to build buy-in around the restaurant idea quickly. “A lot of our internal city staff are now used to this idea of temporarily transforming space in the public right of way for these purposes,” said Senior Transportation Planner Barkha Patel. “We intend to use existing city programs that we have in place and just adapt them for the ‘streateries’ concept.”
Collaboration is key. Tampa’s team worked closely with internal stakeholders such as the city attorney and fire marshal, in order to make sure that the changes met requirements around safety and access for people with disabilities. Externally, they partnered with business groups like the Tampa Downtown Partnership, who helped to get information out to restaurant owners quickly and to provide feedback. Engagement with local neighborhood groups also is critical. “Collaboration was key to the success of this program,” Jorgenson said.
Reach out to restaurant owners. A lot of restaurants never bothered with outdoor seating in the time before COVID-19. So owners may not know where to begin, or have language and other barriers to contend with. Jersey City is using databases typically used by restaurant inspectors to get the word out about this program and encourage them take advantage if they wish. “The city is being very proactive in reaching out to businesses,” Patel said.
It’s not for gathering and lingering. At a time when large gatherings can quickly turn into a public health nightmare, cities need to be careful not to create too much of a “scene” in busy dining areas. In Tampa, reservations are now required, and police discourage people from simply hanging out. “The intent of the street closures is not to provide a gathering or social space,” Jorgenson said. “If you have not made a reservation at one of the local restaurants, or are not intending to shop at a local retail store, then it’s not a place to just walk around with a beverage and enjoy. You go in, you sit, you stay, and then you leave.”
Be flexible about different street environments. Tampa has a few different options restaurants can take advantage of, depending on their capacity, needs, and surroundings. They can expand seating on the sidewalk or take over parking spaces; in three cases, entire streets have been shut down for restaurants and retail. Jersey City has several ways of turning parking spaces into seating, employing anything from astroturf for tables and chairs to sit on to custom-built wooden decks.
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