Dining al fresco is helping to revive a downtown Portland ravaged by a pandemic, protests and riots, and a surge in unsheltered homeless. The city and restaurant owners are to be praised for working quickly to make outdoor dining a vivid part of life.
We hope the trend never goes away.
On almost any given night these days, downtown sidewalks are humming with pedestrian activity. The many outdoor-dining venues often have lines out the door — as it were — waiting for tables. A story in the June 17 issue of the Tribune bore the headline "Keep Portland Barcelona," because the plethora of outdoor options seems so European.
And it's not just downtown Portland. Permanent and semi-permanent structures have popped up along major thoroughfares on the east side. Hillsboro and Forest Grove have outdoor dining. Beaverton and Oregon City, too.
It all began during the pandemic, when Portland's Bureau of Transportation lifted restrictions on setting up tables on sidewalks, in parking lanes, and even in traffic lanes. The changes came about to help eateries where indoor dining had been banned. Gutsy restaurateurs invested in new tables and chairs, coverings to protect diners from rain and traffic, and heaters in the winter months, to help their businesses survive.
Those entrepreneurs who paid to move their food outdoors deserve applause. If ever there was a time to cut costs, the height of the pandemic was it. But those who had the wherewithal to make the investment not only helped their businesses and employees endure a horrific year but the entire city.
Praise, too, for PBOT for relaxing rules and showing quick flexibility in the face of an unprecedented pandemic.
And it doesn't look like the trend is stopping. PBOT says that 565 eateries were issued permits to move outdoors and that 22% of them are identified as being owned by Black or Indigenous entrepreneurs or people of color. And 96 additional applications are in progress.
The Portland Business Alliance tracks pedestrians and walking traffic to the core of Downtown. "We are definitely seeing a recovery," said Sydney Mead, director of downtown programs. Comparing retail sales from June 2019 to June 2021, Mead said the city had seen an 86% recovery. Considering how hard the city was hit in 2020, that's remarkable.
Mead called the open-air dining on Southwest Harvey Milk Street, between 11th and 12th Avenues, "a pretty amazing example of a street plaza that is in the right place and right design."?The street itself wasn't heavily trafficked before being blocked off as pedestrian-only. It's surrounded by such food fare as Jake's Famous Crawfish, McMenamins' Zeus Café, Scandals and Bamboo Sushi Izakaya. "The street painting and plants have made this location vibrant and kind of a 'scene,'" Mead said. "The retailers in this area see this as a big boost to their businesses."
Not all street plazas are doing that well, she pointed out, and there have been rumblings about the missing parking spaces. That is no doubt true. Not all of them will work. But based on the foot traffic we currently see, the venues are drawing a vibrant clientele — perhaps thanks to light rail, the Portland Streetcar, or people who don't mind using the city's parking garages.
The last thing Portland should do is go back to the failed national transit policies of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, in which parking was the holy grail of urban design. Back then, urbanists made it easier and easier to drive into America's downtown cores while giving people fewer and fewer reasons to do so.
We're quick to chide the city when it fouls up, so fair is fair: Kudos to city leaders for the foresight to create outdoor dining. Here's to it becoming a permanent part of life in the Rose City. And cheers to those restaurateurs who splashed out for investments during the pandemic.
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