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The streatery at Lulu’s Wine Garden is suitable for all weather. On a sunny day, the long wooden structure providing overhead coverage has retractable walls to allow in a breeze. When it’s cold, the restaurant can turn on heaters for warmth. Tables are separated by plants and fake ivy curls around the wooden walls. At night, hanging lights illuminate the area. Owner Paul Carlson says he spent $10,000 to completely deck out the space just off U Street NW.
“We figured that the only way we could continue being competitive [against the other streateries] is for us to beautify our space to make it more attractive,” Carlson says. “So, you know, we started investing money. We painted and then started to put a structure around it to help us attract customers and keep the customers that we did have.”
Carlson is one of the many restaurateurs who want to see the streatery program, launched in May 2020, extended beyond the end of the public health emergency. Even as D.C. fully reopens, it looks likely. “I have a sense the Council will agree to extend this program,” Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh tells City Paper.
The streatery program was part of D.C.’s efforts to stimulate the city’s economy as the first wave of COVID-19 infections waned in the warmer months of 2020. Streateries allow more diners to eat outdoors, which is safer than indoor dining because of the way the virus spreads. Hundreds of restaurants applied for permits to extend their seating onto sidewalks, streets, alleyways, and other public spaces.
Earlier this year, the District Department of Transportation surveyed streatery participants and found that 89 percent of them supported making the program permanent and 87 percent reported having streateries increased their revenue and viability. The Office of Planning also surveyed more than 3,000 D.C. residents on their attitudes about streateries—73 percent of participants said the presence of an outdoor dining option or a curbside pickup and delivery option allowed them to eat out or order takeout more.
Residents left comments when the survey was open to responses in February. Some expressed their concerns about the safety of indoor or outdoor dining and others remarked on the lack of sit-down restaurants in Wards 7 and 8.
“I am all for sidewalk spaces being converted into outdoor seating provided that these do not block the flow of foot traffic,” one comment reads. “Business owners need to make sure any outside structures are secure/sturdy for the inevitable storm or high winds. Not at all a fan of the streateries that actually go into traffic—feel those are just waiting for unnecessary accidents where folks get injured/killed by a reckless driver.”
“Most of the restaurants in my NE neighborhood already had outdoor patios before the pandemic,” another reads. “None of the others close by have branched out into sidewalks, alleys, or streets, but I would love to see more of that. Closing entire blocks to traffic, similar to 7th Street SE near Eastern Market, either on weekends or permanently, throughout the city would be a spectacular improvement.”
“My neighborhood is one of the least resourced communities in the city so we have no restaurants, but I would hate to see these extensions in the face of a pandemic,” writes another respondent. “This is not needed. Instead of imposing on pedestrians and taking parking spots from areas of the city where people are already fighting for them, pay people to stay home and shut everything down until we get things under control. This is ridiculous.”
In March, Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed the Reopen Washington, DC Alcohol Act which proposes extending the streatery program without restriction through the end of 2021, as opposed to through the end of the public health emergency. It also seeks to extend the program into 2022 and 2023 between the months of May through October for a one-time $100 fee. On May 10, the Council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development held a hearing on the legislation.
“Measures like the streatries and off-premise alcohol sales have given us the flexibility to operate safely in this ever-evolving pandemic landscape,” Bad Saint co-owner Genevieve Villamora told the Council, adding these measures were vital to keeping her small business open.
Even though Cheh represents Ward 3, she echoed respondents of the Office of Planning survey by noting the lack of streateries in Wards 7 and Ward 8. Only Sala Thai and Busboys & Poets operate streateries east of the Anacostia River. “It highlights the need to provide support for the business communities over there, to be able to expand,” Cheh said at the hearing. (Both restaurants could not be reached for interviews.)
Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto also supports extending the program, but year-round and permanently, pointing to an emergency legislation she and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie introduced last year to extend the program through the end of 2021.
“As the public health emergency comes to an end, I urge city leaders to keep and build upon this creative model,” Pinto tells City Paper in an email. “It is not practicable for our businesses to assemble and disassemble these spaces, patios, and decks each summer, especially when heat lamps allow for residents to enjoy outdoor spaces comfortably in the winter months.” Several other councilmembers expressed support for extending the program via Bowser’s alcohol act.
At Lulu’s, which has had a streatery since the fall of 2020, Carlson wants to see the program extended indefinitely and year-round. “The city in general, I think, was very responsive and assisted our industry in helping us find creative ways to survive,” he says. Lulu’s was one of the benefactors of a $6,000 winterization grant, which allowed the wine garden to purchase heaters during the cold months.
“In many ways, I would say it’s unfortunate that it’s taken so long for a city so modern and so, in many ways, front-and-center in the world to even consider this concept because it’s used in many other places in the world prior to the pandemic,” Carlson says. “And I think it’s a characteristic that is going to be wonderful for our city if we can find a way to keep it permanently.”
The streatery, he says, allowed Lulu’s to build a client base as a new restaurant and ultimately survive the pandemic. And even as D.C. moves to fully reopen, Carlson doubts that the interest in streateries will die off. “Even though we’re seeing better days with COVID, I think the fear of COVID is going to exist in all of our minds for a very, very long time,” he says.
In Mount Pleasant, pizzeria Martha Dear only recently set up a streatery, marking the first time they’ve allowed customers to dine on site in any form during the pandemic. “Pizza travels well, but there’s nothing quite like pizza right out of the oven,” co-owner Tara L. Smith says. It’s only been a few weeks since opening, she says, but demand continues to grow.
Smith got some support to bring the streatery to fruition. She praises District Bridges, a local nonprofit that’s focused on community engagement, for helping Martha Dear apply for a streatery permit.
Streateries create a “lovely vibrant feel to the city,” according to Smith. She knows not all Washingtonians are ready to dive into indoor dining just yet, making outdoor options ideal. But until the restaurant knows whether the program will be extended, Martha Dear isn’t investing any further in its streatery.
Building out Martha Dear’s streatery meant considering accessibility. Businesses are required to have an ADA-compliant ramp if their streateries are not level with the sidewalk. Martha Dear’s streatery sits on a wooden platform that’s level with the sidewalk. Smith says that was both an accessibility choice, as well as an aesthetic one, to make the streatery resemble a boardwalk.
But Heidi Case, chair of the Multimodal Accessibility Advisory Committee, which is appointed by the mayor’s office and advises DDOT, says many streateries are not as accessible as they seem. In the Office of Planning survey, commenters noted that streateries sometimes reduced access to sidewalks.
Seating on the sidewalk or in the street, Case says, can block access to places where MetroAccess vehicles or ride-shares drop passengers safely on the sidewalk. “It’s blocking access to the curb cuts,” she says. “That’s an issue.” Some streateries, she says, also require someone to step down from the sidewalk to the street, which is difficult for someone who uses a mobility device unless a ramp is available.
Case says she loves that the city is increasing the number of available places to eat outdoors, and supports the streatery program, but says accessibility needs to go hand-in-hand with the program.
Some people with disabilities say they feel like an afterthought when things like streateries are created and implemented, leading to trouble moving on sidewalks. Changes to common thoroughfares can also impact individuals who are blind, have low vision, or have developmental disabilities. (Restaurants have sometimes struggled to be welcoming to diners with disabilities.)
Case suggests that, should the steatery program be extended, an oversight mechanism be built into approval of new streateries to ensure accessibility. Case says her committee has been in touch with the Council and she adds that people who come across an inaccessible streatery can call 311 to report it to DDOT.
Steateries can clash with other aspects of city living, like transportation. They were and are so vital to business that restaurants’ whose streateries are in jeopardy are fighting to keep them. When DDOT announced on May 28 that they would be forging ahead with constructing a protected bike lane on 9th Street NW, a co-owner of Unconventional Diner in Shaw expressed his displeasure. The restaurant has a large “parklet” with 80 seats on 9th Street NW, according to a post in Shaw Main Streets.
“After the devastating year of COVID, Unconventional Diner and other businesses on the east side of 9th street are now faced with more devastating news—the loss of our beloved and economically essential outdoor dining space to make way for bicycle lanes,” Eric Eden told Shaw Main Streets. Talks of the protected bike lane began in 2015. Unconventional Diner opened in 2017.
“While we appreciate the environmental benefits of alternative transportation, we are baffled by the city’s plan to drop to one, north-bound vehicular lane on our super busy and blossoming street,” Eden continues. “As business owners who live and work in the District, we ask that the powers that be carefully consider the economic impact—likely in the millions of dollars—to our businesses and the loss of sales tax from those sales.”
And as D.C. slips into summertime, streateries are contending with a new challenge: Surprise thunderstorms, cicadas, and stifling heat. This isn’t the first time streateries have had to adapt their set-ups according to the season. Streateries grew over the past year to incorporate awnings, walls, and other forms of coverage as well as additional heating.
In Dupont Circle, Residents Cafe & Bar partner David Jack says the restaurant’s outdoor space has become an investment that attracts customers and one they intend to keep beyond full reopening. Residents’ patio doesn’t extend into the street, but the establishment received a $6,000 grant from D.C. to winterize its space, resulting in what Jack calls a “fluid concept.”
First, he says, they made the patio COVID-19 safe by spacing out furniture and tables. Then, they invested in the aesthetic, weaving fake cherry blossoms around seating and setting out outdoor rugs and weather-proof furniture. They spent more money adding a clear plastic rooftop to protect people from rain, which still allows diners to see the sky. “We want to continue to build out that experience,” Jack says. “We anticipate more Washingtonians realizing how amazing that experience is and experiencing it for themselves.”
At HalfSmoke, their newfangled outdoor space isn’t on the street, but in a nearby empty lot in Shaw. Owner Andre McCain says it cost $30,000 to construct. That included furniture, lighting, tables, decorations, and inflatable igloos that turned the outdoor space into a “winter wonderland” in the colder months. (These sorts of structures were more popular with customers than with some hospitality industry workers who manned them.)
“They get very hot,” McCain says, which is why the restaurant is now looking into ways to cool them down during the summer months. On the plus side, he says, they provide coverage during summer rainstorms.
McCain wants to see the streatery program extended.“The main thing in respect to streateries is to not assume that, just because COVID restrictions are lifted for now, and hopefully forever, things for businesses are just going to go back to normal,” he says. “There’s really a 15-month repair process we need to recover from, not just economically, but in all the ways COVID has impacted everyone. I think we really need to continue to be nimble.”