THERE'S A HOT new place to eat ramen in town—between two cars, where SE Division eatery Wafu has converted a parking spot into a raised platform that's a nifty outdoor extension of its café.
Under a new city program, "Street Seats," 15 parking-spot-to-restaurant-seating transformations are slated to pop up by the end of the year (the second has already sprung up outside the Pearl District's Oven and Shaker). But while the program aims to help small businesses and make streets more pedestrian friendly, it also raises questions about the best use of public space.
Portland's pilot program is based on similar, successful ventures in New York and San Francisco. But in those cities, the space reclaimed from cars is made public; big signs note that anyone, not just patrons of a platform's sponsoring restaurant, can use the tables and chairs. In Portland, businesses will shoulder the cost of building the café seating (Wafu's cost about $1,000), pay for a $459 outdoor café permit, and pay the city market rate for any lost metered parking. In exchange, the restaurant can claim exclusive use of the space for its patrons only.
The program is similar to the conversion of the narrow stretch of SW Ankeny outside Voodoo Doughnut into carfree restaurant seating last summer. Businesses along the alley paid the city $8,472 in 2012 for the right to fill former public parking spots and roadway with private picnic tables that greatly expand their seating capacity.
While carving out person-friendly space from cars is great, says Matthew Passmore of Rebar, a San Francisco-based design firm that's been a champion of "parklets" nationwide, "if the city is giving the right to do commercial activity in the space and exclude people from that space, then the city should be charging market rate for that land. Otherwise, it's a public subsidy for that restaurant."
Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dan Anderson notes, though, that the cafés will be used daily by more people than the parking spots were, making the land arguably of more use to the general public.
"Space in the right-of-way is no longer used for storing cars, but it really activates it for a lot more people," says Anderson. In other words, instead of storing private vehicles on public land, the city is allowing the storage of private tables. Business owners wanted the spaces to be zoned as "sidewalk cafés," not as public rights of way, in part because it means they can serve alcohol.
Portland Architecture Editor Brian Libby says that while it's good to be skeptical of giving over public space to private uses, parking spots are not the type of public land that people want to hang out in, anyway.
"Putting in a few restaurant tables sounds like fun," he says, "more than opening Pandora's box. Streets and freeways still dominate the built environment in the United States and it's right to reclaim some of that space."