DANA MERRYDAY/PHOTO

Workers in the early stages of a building the outdoor seating area in front of Jack Sprats in Cottage Grove.

When I grew up, everything was downtown. We did our clothes shopping at small stores or at JCPenney. The Little Folks Store was a dreamland for a kid, Bennett’s Drugstore had a great lunch counter and soda fountain. The library was there, all within a few blocks. Then the malls and shopping centers came as the town sprawled. Some of the old downtown businesses tried moving and reinventing themselves, others threw in the towel. Now, that downtown is stale, populated chiefly by lawyers’ offices.

Cottage Grove has fared better in preserving much of the character and feel of the days gone by in its historic district. But the same forces pressure the small local businesses in our downtown. Shopping centers and chain stores attract customers in with their selection and prices. Online retail, the discount stores in Eugene, and Covid have all made it hard for our local downtown shops to stay afloat.

The problem is not recent, but has been exacerbated by the restrictions designed to keep us safe during Covid. Cottage Grove has been the focus of several groups looking to support businesses and draw visitors to enjoy the best-preserved early 20th-Century downtown in Lane County.

Downtown Cottage Grove – a recent merger of the Economic & Business Improvement District (EBID), the nonprofit Main Street Program, Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce, and our City government – has collaborated to make our downtown a vibrant destination. Roots of this support go back to the National Main Street Program, formed in 1980, to offer help to traditional downtowns impacted by loss of business, the result of the interstate highway routing commerce away from the heart of towns as small as Jacksonville to Downtown Portland. Our local EBID was formed in 2001.

The most recent idea to bloom in the heart of Cottage Grove is an experimental Parklet pilot program. The first mention of the idea for creating a seating area out of a parking space in front of several restaurants in the historic district came up at the City Council meeting held Feb. 10, 2020. To remind us of where we were then, this was still an in-person meeting held in City Hall with the public present. The extent of what was to come from the pandemic was not yet known, but was soon to become apparent.

Civil Engineer Ryan Sisson presented the idea as a way to increase the walk-ability of the sidewalks downtown, where outside tables have affected the overall accessibility. The idea of using a parking space to increase the seating capacity while freeing up the sidewalk came from a request to do so and also from research into other Oregon cities who have them already. Photos potential parklets in front of Jack Sprats and The Axe & Fiddle were shown, along with photos of established parklets from other cities.

DANA MERRYDAY/PHOTO

A couple visiting from Dexter enjoy the outdoor seating at a “Streatery” in Cottage Grove.

Both Sisson and City Manager Richard Meyers emphasized that they, at this point, were only seeking direction from the council about whether to pursue the idea.  

Parking concerns were a concern among the councilors. Meyers pointed out that the city staff were engaged in working on a downtown parking plan and that the parklets could be worked into that. A number of citizens spoke out in favor of moving the idea forward, including the owners of Jack Sprats and The Axe. One of the positives many speakers mentioned was the likely effect of the parklets slowing down traffic in the historic district. Councilor Candice Solesbee was an enthusiastic supporter, citing the success of parklets she had experienced in Milwaukie, Albany, and Forest Grove. Mayor Jeff Gowing, also a fan, stated he had never seen all of the city parking lots full, even during big downtown events. The Council was united in moving forward, at least in learning more. The fact the parklets are designed to be removable made it easier for the City Council to decide to give staff the go-ahead to do the work in designing a proposal.

Then came Covid, hard! On March 8, Gov. Kate Brown issued her first State of Emergency Order, and as cases and deaths mounted, so did the restrictions. Closures of business and converting to take-out only, along with restrictions on gatherings, and schooling threw monkey wrenches into everyone’s lives. The proposed parking study was postponed. 

The discussion among the council, however, continued virtually through digital streaming. The world was different now, and debate ranged from slowing down the whole idea to pressing forward. Businesses were eager to apply for parklets. Others made the point it was a pilot program scheduled to end Nov. 15, 2021, when the Council could decide to continue, terminate, or modify the experiment.

At the June 22, 2020 council meeting, it reviewed the four parklet applications and awarded one each to The Axe & Fiddle and Jack Sprats. Another wrinkle was added by a friendly amendment and the official name would become “Streateries” and be limited to restaurants or businesses that served food. Even though approved, the Streateries ran into a financial roadblock as the businesses faced continued shutdowns, restrictions and financial hardships that would not allow implementation.

That hurdle was cleared thanks to a timely grant from the Oregon Tourism Commission. This semi-independent agency that does business as “Travel Oregon” has been working since the 2003 economic downturn in Oregon to help the economy by developing visitor experiences and inspire folks to travel to Oregon. 

Travel Oregon granted the City $30,000 under its Destination Ready Program to help the already approved idea, shuttered by COVID, to be constructed. The money went to the materials, and city time for the construction. The Grant emphasized that it will “aid in economic recovery and enhance local livability and provide access to a diversity of explorers. In other words “If you build it, they will come!” As a “shovel ready” project, Streateries were just what Travel Oregon was looking for.

The design for the removable seating structure had already been worked out and safety was the No. 1 consideration. For example the railings were engineered to withstand 200 pounds of horizontal pressure and comply with Oregon Structural Speciality Code for commercial usage. Beefy timbers and custom-made metal hardware insure the robustness of the dining areas. To allay fears of a vehicle interacting with diners, a large concrete barrier will be placed in front of each structure in the direction of oncoming traffic to keep cars and diners apart. Since there is not an issue currently of cars sideswiping parked vehicles, this should provide extra reassurance to those concerned.

Since Streateries constitute a separate dining area, ADA requirements dictate that a wheelchair-accessible table be placed immediately adjacent to the Streatery. In fact accessibility has weighed large in to whole question. By moving the tables off the sidewalk onto the Streatery, sidewalk-accessibility is improved for both wheelchair users and the visually impaired. 

Last Friday the city crews had finished the installation of the first Steatery in front of Jack Sprats and the caution tape came down as tables were moved onto the new territory and made ready for the first customers to occupy the space. I had a chat with a couple visiting from Dexter. The local eatery is one of their favorites and they were delighted to be able to have their furry friend dog be able to join them in dining instead of waiting in the car as usual when they would dine inside. Plans are to put another Streatery at The Axe & Fiddle but on the 7th Street side out of concern of traffic visibility at that corner. A third will be going in front of Bartolotti’s, making it one per block. 

One of the neat things about these new features is that while the businesses are open, they have the run of the space, but after business hours the space reverts to public use. The business is free to remove or secure their furniture but it becomes public space to use and enjoy. The structures will still belong to the city and will be removed after November for storage. They are designed to fit the high crown of Main Street and to allow water to pass through the gutters unobstructed in the case of that liquid Oregon sunshine.

With the installation of the first Steatery, several elected and government officials said they were surprised by comments on social media questioning the effort. The entire initiative was part of public meeting discussions for months. And it’s still going, Sissan said, pointing out that this is a pilot program and not necessarily a permanent addition to downtown. “In the fall of 2021, staff will be asking citizens and business owners for feedback on the Streatery pilot study. The City Council will be studying the successes as well as how the program can be improved. In the meantime, citizens are encouraged to provide their input at any time.” His phone number is 541-767-4153, and he welcomed calls.

With our shuttered downtown opening and an Art Walk at the end of April, the Streateries sound like a great idea to me. Give them a chance as a part of keeping our downtown vibrant and alive after these challenges lately. Try an outside table and see a different view of Main Street, soon in three different locations.

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