As a creative solution to Washington State’s Phase 2 restrictions, the City of Bellingham is allowing temporary street closures in the Downtown and Fairhaven businesses districts to give restaurants expanded outdoor eating areas on sidewalks, parking stalls and roadways.
Beginning Wednesday, July 15, Holly Street in Downtown Bellingham will have a full-block closure of all driving lanes between Commercial Street and Bay Street. Detour routes for through traffic will be clearly marked. Additional off-street parking is available in the Commercial Street Parking Garage, which will remain be accessible via Commercial Street.
On Thursday, July 16, 10th Street in Fairhaven will close the west driving lane and parking area for one block between Mill Street and Harris Avenue.
Starting the week of July 20, Railroad Avenue in Downtown Bellingham will have several angled parking stalls converted to an expanded dining area between Holly Street and Champion Street.
“Economic recovery is a top priority in Bellingham. We want to take steps that are welcome, supportive, and even experimental, to help our businesses thrive. They are demonstrating amazing ingenuity as they adapt to health restrictions, and we want to do everything we can to help while they observe health protocols,” Bellingham Mayor Fleetwood said. “The inconvenience of a detour is a small price to pay to help save downtown and Fairhaven businesses.”
The City of Bellingham is partnering with the Downtown Bellingham Partnership and Historic Fairhaven Association to open streets and parking areas for businesses in need of additional space to meet COVID-19 requirements. Under Phase 2 guidelines, restaurants are limited to 50% of their usual capacity and tables must be spaced a minimum of six-feet apart. This makes business as usual almost impossible for many operators.
Black Sheep co-owner Chas Kubis said his 3,900-square-foot restaurant in Downtown Bellingham can now accommodate 35 people inside with social distancing, and he plans to accommodate another 35 outside.
“When we re-opened June 10, I was the most nervous I’ve been since we first opened the restaurant,” he confided. “You want to make sure your staff and customers feel safe and let them know you genuinely care about their safety, and I think we did great. But the indefinite nature of this situation is the hardest and most stressful thing on a business owner. We’re trying to take it one step at a time, to not overreact or get too set in our ways.”
“Working with the City to ensure downtown businesses have the ability to expand their seating capacity outside during these summer months is a significant way we can help with our district’s recovery,” said Alice Clark, Executive Director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. “We really appreciate the City’s willingness to do what’s necessary to accommodate the businesses involved in these expansions. For many these adaptations are critical to their ongoing operations.”
“The city has had a program in place for a year that provides an approval process for sidewalk cafes, temporary decks to extend the size of the sidewalk and having a “streeterie”, essentially a sidewalk café set up in the parking area or even in the traffic lane,” said Darby Cowles, Senior Planner in the city’s Department of Planning & Community Development.
In June Cowles received applications from Downtown Bellingham restaurants: Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro, Black Sheep, Storia Cucina and Thousand Acre Ciderhouse, as well as from Fairhaven businesses Swim Club Cocktail Bar and OVN. The approval process, which involves discussions with neighboring businesses to ensure everyone is on board, takes about a week.
“Our message to local businesses is, we feel for you, we support you,” Cowles said. “Your success as restaurateurs is so pivotal to the success of our commercial districts, our sense of character and our liveness as a community. You’re doing a great job as entrepreneurs in the community, and the city is really open to working with you to accommodate the space you need to operate – so please reach out with questions.”
“It has been encouraging working with the Downtown Bellingham Partnership and the City of Bellingham as we creatively explore how we can support our businesses during this time.” said Scott Ward, Executive Director of the Historic Fairhaven Association. “Street closures expand the seating area for several of our restaurants and enhances the pedestrian experience. It is an exciting project for Fairhaven and the businesses involved.”
Matt Brawner, owner of OVN in Fairhaven, was among the first businesses to apply to the city for increased outdoor seating. OVN has been open for take-out and delivery since the stay-at-home order and dining room closure began, and even since Phase 2 began. Because Brawner’s staff didn’t feel comfortable with customers dining inside, the interior dining room remains closed. Brawner hopes to have up to 47 seats outside.
Brawner is feeling cautious about the future. “OVN will continue to offer contact-free services for as long as we can, including curbside pickup and in-house delivery. Sometimes it takes great pressure to move businesses to explore new modes of operation, and I’m hopeful that the innovation we have been seeing will continue, and will continue to increasingly account for values other than securing growth for the bottom line.”
“We began a to-go program three weeks ago and we’ve been trying to make the best of it and to let diners know we’re open through social media,” said restaurant owner Jonathan Sutton. Were it not for the pandemic he would easily seat 69 diners inside, but currently, has capacity for only 20. The outdoor patio permit will grant him space for another four-to-six tables with social distancing.
His neighbor, Thousand Acre Ciderhouse, is also hoping for outdoor seating to bring its capacity to a total of 36. Normally it has capacity for 95 patrons.
“We were only seven months old when the closures happened, so our finances have always been a juggle,” said co-owner Jenny Hagemann. “But I feel hopeful. Assuming we see participation with that capacity and our to-go business doesn’t completely drop off, we’ll be healthy, with some support from our landlord and economic relief. I see a path at least towards the fall.”
To help open businesses increase their visibility and the fact that they are, indeed, open, the City of Bellingham has initiated a Green Cone program. Large green cones, placed conspicuously outside the front doors of participating business, will indicate that their doors are open. “That way, if you’re driving through an area you can see exactly who is open and who isn’t,” Cowles said.
Peter Frazier, managing partner of Bellingham’s Hotel Leo and Heliotrope Hotel said, “As a business owner I know our success is tied to a thriving and vibrant downtown and Fairhaven. Many of our favorite businesses are in a fight for survival right now. If a driver spends an extra minute or two to detour, they can know they are doing so to help save our locally-owned and beloved restaurants, shops, and bars, and create a safe and enjoyable outdoor scene.”
The street closures and adaptations approved to date are permitted into early fall and may be extended, depending on their success and the status of COVID-19 response measures. Modifications may occur during this time to adapt to changing needs and lessons learned.