A lot has happened in the last few years. Big changes. Upheaval. The status quo was shaken. The rules changed, bringing about new developments to Norfolk’s Zoning Ordinance.
COVID-19 brought swift and dramatic changes to our lives, whether we wanted them or not. Some were positive (working from home! to-go drinks!), others negative (basically everything else). Cities scrambled to adapt, furiously consulting the playbooks, rewriting them, or throwing them out altogether. And Norfolk was no different.
The city developed the Open Norfolk program to expedite new outdoor dining spaces and allow restaurants to continue operating while complying with social distancing guidelines. The Streateries (“Street” + “Eateries”) Program was developed in conjunction, allowing businesses to move their operations from the sidewalk into the street. In this case, Covid was almost a blessing in disguise.
“Streateries came to Norfolk because of COVID,” said Paula Shea, Norfolk’s Assistant Director of Planning. “We had been wanting to explore better ways to activate our rights-of-way, as part of a Complete Streets program. But there was resistance, even from restaurant owners, because they wanted to keep the parking spaces out front for their customers.” But when COVID hit, and businesses were closing left and right, reeling with uncertainty, Norfolk “finally decided to get out of its own way.”
So the city, together with its consultants and local business owners, went forth and did the damn thing.
“The first round of Streateries was, literally, ‘move your tables and chairs into the street, and here’s some traffic cones and sawhorses for safety” Shea recounts. “Our design consultant, WPA, and others, they did the labor to physically move furniture and such outside.”
As the pandemic continued, the city developed guidelines and a formal code for the Streateries. Covid provided an opportunity to test this concept, which was well-received. “People liked it! It was such a great opportunity to get out of the house and do something together safely” said Shea. Not to mention, the authorization of Streateries, to-go and curbside pickup, and parking lot dining “saved Norfolk’s restaurant industry.”
The present Streateries program will expire in December 2022, when the city enacts new regulations. The new guidelines will specify the time, place, and manner of outdoor dining, consolidating the ideas generated over the last couple of years. It also aims to make outdoor dining more equitable. For example, all existing Streateries in Norfolk are considered temporary, and the city is not charging them for using the right-of-way. Meanwhile, restaurants with sidewalk dining have been paying rent to the city for the privilege.
It’s a team effort, to be sure. The Right-of-Way administrator in the Public Works Department oversees the program. The Department of Transit ensures compatibility with a multimodal network. The Planning Department oversees site design and building permits. The Health Department ensures that the dining tables are in the proper places – for example, food can only be carried so far out of the kitchen, and tables can only be on paved surfaces (no dining on grass!). The Fire Marshall and the City Attorney have to approve. WPA and YARD&Company are leading the project.
A note about Transit – it’s no secret that there is a power struggle between cars, bikes, and pedestrians for ownership of the street, as well as businesses who want to keep their parking spots. Streateries are another contender in some areas, raising questions of equity and whether it’s wise to let private companies monetize a public facility. These new spaces are only allowed on streets with speed limits of 25mph or less, with no bike facilities. “In theory,” said Shea, “we made it safer for bikes by slowing traffic even more.” As for pedestrians, the ultimate goal is to make more room for them by moving dining facilities off of the sidewalk and fully onto the street.
Spring is over a month away, but last weekend’s unusually favorable weather gave us a taste of what to look forward to – sun, patio-sitting, drink-sipping, people-watching. When the time comes, and you’re posting up at your favorite local Streatery, raise a glass to the city staff who made it happen.
Catie was born in Norfolk and as an adult has lived here for two years and change. She has a master's in Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia. She likes hiking, playing trivia, being a flaneuse, pinball, memes, and growing vegetables.