Camas pauses ‘parklet’ debate

City will not allow pandemic-era outdoor dining spaces to reopen on downtown streets in ’23

The original "parklet" outside Feast 316, which featured a white picket fence and tables spaced at least six feet apart, is pictured on Oct. 9, 2020. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

Fans of downtown Camas’ outdoor dining “parklets” will have to wait at least a year to see if the open-air eating spaces put in place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic might someday return.

Camas city officials decided this week to pause the parklet-renewal conversation, but said they would take it up again in the future.

“We will consider it at a later date, but for this year we’re not going to consider any applications,” Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said Monday, Feb. 6, during the Council’s workshop.

Known as parklets, street eateries and “streeteries,” the outdoor dining areas popped up on streets across the country in 2020 and 2021, as a way for restaurants impacted by public health mandates prohibiting indoor dining to serve customers in a safer, better ventilated, outdoor environment.

“These are always in the (street) and typically in parking areas,” Camas Engineering Manager Curleigh Carothers told the Council during its Monday evening workshop. “We had these parklets in the downtown area. Mesa and Feast 316 had them installed … based on the governor’s order for no indoor seating in restaurants during COVID.”

The downtown Camas parklets closed in the fall of 2022, but the owners of Nuestra Mesa and Feast 316 have since requested permission to reopen the outdoor dining spaces.

“They have requested that they be able to put them back in the street,” Carothers said, noting that the city was able to approve the temporary parklets under the governor’s emergency COVID mandates, but does not have any process in place to allow for more permanent outdoor dining areas in the city’s streets.

“This is not seating on the sidewalk. We allow that when it’s done properly and allows pedestrians to pass safely,” Carothers said, adding that the city also offers special permits for the type of in-the-street dining or gathering that happens during special events such as Camas Days or Hometown Holidays, as well as temporary permits for six months or less, Carothers said, but “these parklets don’t really fall under any of these types of uses.”

City staff took the issue to the Camas Parking Advisory Committee on Jan. 10, and said the committee members believed city officials needed to consider pedestrian and traffic safety issues; impacts to the amount of parking spaces in the city’s popular downtown business district; ongoing maintenance of the parklets; the location of future parklets; and who might benefit from the parklets.

Carothers said the city has received a mixed bag of responses regarding the possible renewal of the downtown parklets.

Business owners at Nuestra Mesa and Feast 316, which utilized the parklets, told Carothers the outdoor spaces were “always packed with people,” and that they hoped the city would allow the parklets to come back.

Steve Wall, Camas’ director of public works, added that the city received around “five or six” emails on the subject and that three of those emails were from people who did not want the parklets “even on a temporary basis.”

One email writer “was in the middle and could see benefits to businesses and also the impacts,” Wall said. “The statement at the end was, ‘Maybe there’s a balance we can find.'”

The Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce polled downtown businesses in 2022, and said the majority did not want to keep the parklets in place.

Wall asked the Council on Monday if the parklet issue was something they would like to explore from a policy perspective.

“This was all based on emergency declarations. To do this right would be a significant effort — to go through the process, get feedback from the community and not just from downtown businesses or just the business owners,” Wall said. “Right now, we have a lot of other priorities on our plate. If we were to do this in the near-term, I would say something might need to give.”

Councilmember Bonnie Carter suggested the city may want to include the issue of parklets in the downtown Camas subarea planning process included in the city’s 2023-24 budget.

“I could see this being a natural fit in that process,” Carter said Monday. “I think staff would be able to fit that in there rather than on top of a big priority list we already have going.”

Wall agreed that might be a good idea.

“From a staff perspective, as we look at the downtown as a whole … it’s probably a good time to have that conversation and there would already be community outreach going on,” Wall said.

Councilmember Tim Hein said he thought the parklet issue could wait.

“I think it’s a pretty significant project that is not an immediate concern. There needs to be a bigger scope. There needs to be equitable distribution. I would wait,” Hein said Monday.

Councilmember Don Chaney added that city officials may also want to consider the issue of parklets when discussing the various codes that will pave the way for unique development standards in the city’s North Shore area.

Councilmember Leslie Lewallen said she also liked the idea of looking at possibilities for parklets in the North Shore.

“I know these are very successful in other communities — in Walla Walla, for instance,” Lewallen said Monday. “I just would like to see more of a comprehensive, well thought out plan than (say,) ‘We’re going to try to fit it in here and it may or may not work out.'”

Business owners at Nuestra Mesa and Feast 316 have expressed interest in continuing the outdoor dining areas.

Nuestra Mesa’s general manager, Maddy Lochner, said the parklets had benefits for Camas’ downtown.

“It helped draw people to our historic downtown … and brought the community together,” Lochner said.

The Nuestra Mesa parklet took up “about five to seven” parking spots, Lochner added, but seemed to also draw people to Nuestra Mesa’s section of Northeast Fourth Avenue.

“It helped all the shops around us and was really great for the community on First Friday and during the Camas Car Show,” Lochner said.