When in Doubt, Copy Portland

Streetcars, publicly funded campaigns, and sidewalk cafes.

How Seattle longs to imitate that urban utopia to the south. First there was the SLUT, and now, like Portland, we're thinking about expanding our fledgling streetcar system. Then our City Council begins studying the idea (Seattle's has to be the most studious council in America) of publicly funded campaigns—which Portland started trying a couple years back. And last week, the council took a look at whether Portland's courtyard-community idea could be the answer to Seattle's ugly-townhouse woes. But that's not all: The mayor's now got a plan to make the city friendlier for sidewalk cafes— just like Portland! Mayor Nickels plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to do away with the master-use permit restaurant owners now have to get from the Department of Planning and Development. (Owners would still have to obtain a right-of-way permit from the Department of Transportation to put tables and chairs outside.) City planner Mark Troxel says Portland— which has almost as much outside seating as it does dudes on skateboards— served as the inspiration. Says Troxel, "As we often do, we looked to other cities and thought, 'Why does Portland have so many sidewalk cafes and we don't?'" By Troxel's count, Seattle has around 200 restaurants permitted for eating and drinking outside. Portland has handed out just 219 annual permits this year, but Portland Department of Transportation project manager Rich Eisenhauer says this represents less than half of the city's sidewalk cafes. "A lot of restaurants just put tables and chairs outside," he says, adding that permits are checked on a complaint basis only. But all is not well with this laissez-faire policy. Eisenhauer says PDOT has been getting heat due to a couple of chronic offenders who take up more than their fair share of the right of way. "There are some groups who'd like us to do more to regulate," he says. "We agree these cafes add a lot to the sidewalk and help make Portland what it is, but it's important to strike a balance." "Grass is always greener," muses council member Sally Clark, who chairs the Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee, where the legislation is likely to land. Clark says she's all for making it easier to eat on the street. "Isn't it a measure of our humanity whether we can sit outside like civilized people, order a beer, or coffee and a snack? It shouldn't be that hard. Isn't that what people in civilized countries do?" While streamlining the permitting is a step in the right direction, Seattle will never be as good-time-fun as Portland because the outside drinkers will still have to be caged. The Washington State Liquor Control Board requires any place where booze is served outside to have a fence to keep the kids out. "The best thing we can do is to try and cut down the amount of time it takes business owners to go through the hoops," Clark says. "And if [permits] could be cheaper, it would help a lot."

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