What goes up must come down.
A covered structure complete with chairs and a bar top that was built over a parking space next to the Street 14 Cafe in downtown Astoria on Saturday has been declared a nuisance. At a meeting Monday night, the Astoria City Council said it was not authorized by the city and needs to be taken down.
Contractors hired by cafe owner Micha Lattek to build the parklet have told the city they will disassemble the structure.
Parklets were a lifeline for some downtown businesses amid restrictions on indoor dining at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The city launched its parklet pilot program in 2015 and further loosened the rules around these seating options because of the pandemic. Some of allowances made during the pandemic — such as coverings so the parklets would be comfortable to customers even on rainy days — went away when the city’s emergency declaration over the pandemic ended.
Picnic tables already sit on the sidewalk outside of Street 14 Cafe, but Lattek says that as the pandemic continues and shifts, his business needs more outdoor seating options in order to survive.
He says he’s seen changes in customer behavior and an increased desire for outdoor seating. He argues that restaurants operate on slim margins and he needs to be able to accommodate the flood of customers that typically descend on the cafe on summer weekends.
Current guidelines outlined in the city’s parklet pilot program set limits of one parklet per block. When the City Council reviewed the pilot program in March, councilors heard a recommendation from the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association to deny Lattek’s request given that there was already a parklet in front of Curry & CoCo Thai Eatery, just across the street from the cafe.
“It’s really unfortunate that the business owner willfully took this action not that long after we clearly explained why we would not support a second parklet on the block,” City Councilor Joan Herman said Monday.
But Lattek says he felt like he received mixed messages from the city before the overall conversation, in his words, “just ended” and the city decided to stay with some of the guidelines in the pilot program that would prevent him from also having a parklet. He felt like he’d wasted months of time, effort and money trying to go through the city.
He decided to go ahead with his plan.
“I felt like all I could have done at that point, as a matter of courtesy, was tell the city that I’m going to proceed with the parklet anyway — but, you know, why?” Lattek said. “Because they’re going to have to deal with it like any other violation at this point and I know it’s a big one and it’s pretty prominent and probably because I went through official channels first they’re going to — you know, instead of enforcing other issues in town that aren’t up to code or go without a permit — they’re going to come after me first.”
“I wish I had just done it at this point without ever involving the city in the first place,” he added.
City officials said Lattek and his contractors received warnings on Saturday from a city councilor passing by, the city’s community development director and finally the chief of police that the parklet was not permitted. But Lattek continued anyway.
Under the city’s rules, parklets can no longer have covers, they must be located at least 20 feet from a crosswalk or street corner and they must be moveable structure. Street 14’s parklet is both covered and just one wide-legged step away from a crosswalk. It is also, city councilors noted, bolted to the road.
“It’s a nice looking, stout structure but it was done completely in violation of city code and really in defiance of the City Council where he made the request and was denied,” said Paul Benoit, interim city manager.
Benoit sees Lattek’s action as a one-off moment and not necessarily a reason to overhaul the entire parklet pilot program.
But City Councilor Tom Hilton thinks otherwise. He noticed the work happening on Saturday and alerted other officials. He says Lattek’s actions were a “blatant display and disregard of the city and citizens of the community.” He wants to revisit the parklet program.
“We might have to develop a code with some teeth in it,” he said.