A street with colorful circles painted on the road
Pride Plaza in Southwest Portland. Portland Bureau of Transportation

Portland’s COVID-era outdoor seating in public roadways is on its way to becoming a more permanent fixture of the city’s dining scene, pending final approval from City Council later this year.

In response to the early pandemic indoor dining and capacity restrictions, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) created an emergency permit program that allowed temporary street changes in an effort to give businesses more outdoor space. The program allowed for covered outdoor seating on the sidewalk and in parking lanes, and car-free street plazas. Thousands of Portland businesses have participated in the program: Since May 2020, PBOT has issued and renewed more than 2,200 permits allowing businesses to operate on the sidewalk or street, all at no cost to the business owners. According to a 2021 survey of 2,000 Portlanders, 96 percent said the permit program contributed to safe community spaces during COVID and 93 percent said they wanted street space to remain open for business use.

Two years later, PBOT is planning to transition the emergency program into a permanent option for businesses and communities. City officials support the idea.

“As we emerge from this pandemic, I am determined to create a Portland that is more resilient, more inclusive, and a more equitable place than it was before,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees PBOT, during a press conference Monday. “I am directing PBOT to extend these programs and work to make them permanent, so we can use our streets for people, not just automobiles."

Creating more outdoor community spaces will hinge on the continuance of two PBOT programs: the Healthy Businesses permits that stores and restaurants can obtain to use public right-of-way, like the sidewalk and parking lane, and Public Street Plazas that convert streets into car-free community spaces.

Current Healthy Business permits will expire August 31, with new 15-month permits beginning September 1. Unlike its predecessor, the new permits will cost a fee that will be used to offset the administrative costs of running the program and the parking revenue PBOT will lose by closing off parking spaces. The cost of the fee will be announced later this year. PBOT has been able to cover the cost of the program for the past two years using federal COVID relief funding, grants, and emergency funding from Portland City Council.

PBOT is also improving the safety and accessibility of the ad hoc covered seating. While the city already has some design guidance for street seating, like maintaining at least six feet of sidewalk space and height restrictions, PBOT will release additional design guidance in April and visit all permit sites starting late Spring to ensure all of the outdoor structures are design and ADA compliant.

The city is looking for more community groups and businesses that may be interested in creating a public plaza this year. PBOT partnered with community groups, neighborhood associations, and businesses to develop eight car-free community plazas in 2021 and aims to develop five to 10 in 2022. The majority of 2021’s plazas were only open throughout the summer, except for Pride Plaza on SW 12th Avenue and SW Harvey Milk Street which remains open year-round as an LGBTQ-friendly gathering space. The city has already allocated $470,000 in funding to develop the plazas.

Both the Healthy Businesses permits and Public Street Plazas were supported by federal COVID relief funds and other one-time grants PBOT secured. Currently, PBOT has funding to continue both programs through the end of 2022. In order to officially turn both pilot programs into permanent city programs, the city council must adopt the programs into city code and allocate funding to sustain them. Those decisions are expected to be made during the city’s upcoming 2022-2023 budget cycle talks. During Monday’s press conference, Hardesty encouraged supporters of the public plazas and street seating to voice their support to the city council during the budget process.

Several business owners who utilized the PBOT programs voiced their support for the programs’ permanence.

“If we wouldn’t have had the street closed and been able to set up outdoor seating, we would have had to close probably a year ago,” said Eli Johnson, co-owner of Dots Cafe, which has extended street seating on SE Clinton and 25th. “That impacts the 60 people we employ, as well as the person that comes to fill the kegs, the person that fixes the sinks, the guy that delivers the food—you don’t just lose the restaurant jobs, you lose thousands and thousands of more jobs.”