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August 31, 2021

In Portland, on-street dining and retail may be here to stay

File photo A photo from June 2020 shows a barrier initially placed on Exchange Street in Portland to create outdoor dining and retail space.

Outdoor dining has become a go-to way of doing business for many Portland restaurants since the start of the pandemic, and now the city is looking to expand that option and make it permanent.

The City Council’s Housing & Economic Development Committee meets Tuesday evening to mull recommendations for the current outdoor dining and retail program, which launched in June 2020. It shut down several Portland streets, primarily in the Old Port District, and granted businesses permission to seat customers and sell goods in the makeshift pedestrian malls.

The program was intended to help businesses attract customers after mandatory shutdowns and concerns about the indoor spread of COVID-19 had decimated foot traffic.

Reaction to the program has been largely positive, and two months ago the city granted it status as a temporary festival so streetside commerce can continue until November. City staff now recommend implementing a program, dubbed Open Air Portland, to expand and adopt some of the measures for good.

The changes include:

  • Removing the cap on “parklets,” the 8-by-20-foot on-street spaces used by businesses
  • Permanently allowing businesses to use two adjacent parklets, as informally allowed in recent months
  • Setting the parklet permit application fee at $3,000 and at $5,000 for two parklets
  • Removing eligibility criteria so that businesses with existing sidewalk seating capacity can also utilize the parklets
  • Permanently closing Dana Street, Wharf Street and part of Milk Street to through-traffic.

A survey of nearly 100 local businesses and residents earlier this month shows enthusiasm for many of the changes, according to a city memo. For example, 81% of the respondents indicated the permanent street closures were a “good idea.” The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce has also supported the proposal.

Dena Libner, chief of staff in City Manager Jon Jennings' office, wrote, “We believe that the recommendations included in Open Air Portland will help small businesses weather ongoing challenges and allow for the residents of and visitors to Portland to safely experience and enjoy our City.”

The Housing & Economic Development Committee will hold a public hearing and vote on a possible recommendation to the City Council on Tuesday. The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., and more information can be found here.

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