I think the majority of Americans would at this point would agree that, in most respects, day-to-day urban life has deteriorated since COVD-19: higher costs to everything, escalating crime, visible vandalism, irregular cleaning and maintenance, and—perhaps this is just me (but probably not)—a general malaise that is either a cause or the effect of those other variables. Thankfully, as a person who aims for optimism, I can identify at least one feature that is indisputably better: the ambiance and quality to al fresco dining Take this scene, for example:
It looks like a bustling sidewalk scene, embellished with various restaurants on the left side, while their generous outdoor dining options spill out onto the street in the right hand margin. And while al fresco certainly had its appeal prior to 2020 during the more temperate months, the restrictions placed on indoor crowds during the pandemic forced restaurateurs to innovate with the space available on the sidewalk, endowing it with curb appeal (literally) while protecting from the elements—often expedited through enabling legislation. Hence, in many cities we witnessed elaborate rain-proof canopies, heat lamps, and furniture far more plush than one would expect to see outside. Some places even decked out their al fresco seating, like this particular restaurant, just a pivot from the first photo featured above.
But this second photo reveals something else about the busy urban setting. It’s subtle, but unavoidable. Peer through the aluminum and PVC pipe that forms the scaffolding for these transparent dining shelters, and it’s there in the background. Parked cars. This next pivot makes it more obvious:
These fancy shelters are perched on a parking lot. And it’s not a subtle lot, tucked out of view to emphasize urbanism.
Nope. It’s a parking lot to a strip mall.
Granted, it’s a nice strip mall, with far more attention to detail in the façades, distinction among the different storefronts, and the parking lot is small enough to foster a sense of urban character in an otherwise dense and unmistakably urban neighborhood within Arlington County, Virginia that surrounds it.
I suspect it dates from the 1970s, and the owners have taken good care of it. But, in terms of both function and form, it remains a gussied-up strip mall, with a small lot that accommodates a few dozen cars.
Here’s a Google Street View of this strip mall a few years ago, before COVID-19 restrictions. As these images reveal, it’s tiny as strip malls go; it hosts no more than five or six similarly sized storefronts. I’m not great a spatial estimations, but I can’t imagine the facility is much more than 20,000 square feet, and I count about fifty parking spaces. With the temporary outdoor seating in place these last two years, this apparently nameless strip mall has sacrificed about half of its viable spaces. But apparently it doesn’t matter; the extra seating helps boost the restaurants’ capitalization rate, and the parking reduction isn’t enough to turn people off.
This isn’t the first time I’ve approached this subject. Yes, I’ve covered the spatial implications of COVID-19 a ton (probably too much), but I first noticed a place that gave up its parking back in June 2020, when most people perceived COVID as a clear and present danger. I blogged at Urban Indy about a friendly brunch restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; I also featured a capsule summary here at American Dirt. At that point, I referred to it as a “pandemic parklet”. The restaurant (simply called Egg) had graced its small gravel lot with carefully spaced tables, each with a generous parasol, allowing the restaurant to serve seated guests while its indoor seating was seriously limited (if not completely restricted) due to social distancing regulations at the time. I wasn’t familiar with the place, but this temporary outdoor seating was so pleasant that it took careful scrutiny to figure out that I was dining at what had previously been a parking lot.
This example in Arlington isn’t as discreet; everyone can tell it’s a parking lot when approaching it from the road. But it doesn’t need to be subtle. Once one crosses the parking lot onto the sidewalk tracing the perimeter of the strip mall’s variegated storefronts, walking past canopies where cars used to park, it feels like a street scene. It even sort of looks like one.
This is not the sort of al fresco dining we typically would have seen prior to COVID-19. The investment is much greater. Three years ago, before the term “social distancing” had entered common parlance, the typical outdoor seating would have been a bit more spartan: usually sturdy metal tables and chairs, or perhaps weatherized wood. It might have offered a parasol, or maybe a heat lamp, or citronella candles to help manage the elements, but certainly not a full canopy or floor-to-ceiling enclosure. No vases, no tablecloths. But the pandemic pressured cities to enact such prolonged interior restrictions that many restaurants had to push back; they could only offer carry-out only options for so long.
So many cities—especially large ones (which also tended to have the strictest social distancing standards)—offered legislation that temporarily allowed expanded outdoor dining, sometimes onto parts of the sidewalk that extend outside the restaurant’s frontage, on the side of buildings (in alleys), in the on-street parking spaces, and sometimes even on the street itself, closing it off to cars in the evening. About six months before the pandemic I featured some al fresco spaces in Takoma Park, Maryland that took up an on-street parking space—a fairly bold move at the time. But it involved no more than the usual outdoor dining furniture, some plants, and fencing to separate the customers from the street. And it was a café where people chose to take their food out to eat on the street when weather was nice enough. The fixtures at this strip mall in Arlington clearly intend to last through all seasons and all types of weather, and I’m confident that wait staff will come out to serve people in a few of these restaurants.
The decision to retain temporary outdoor seating is a bit surprising for two major reasons. First, Arlington had stopped regulating occupancy levels for restaurants long before I photographed all this outdoor seating; these pictures date from Halloween 2021. Just weeks earlier, Arlington County initiated a study to explore making the temporary relaxation of outdoor dining permits more permanent. Historically it has been costly and time consuming for businesses to obtain these permits, but in December 2020, the County Board allowed both restaurant and bar owners the freedom to set up Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas (TOSAs) on any public grounds, such as wide sidewalks, plazas, or (pending the owner’s permission) parking lots. As the Board lifted restrictions on indoor seating capacity in spring of 2021, it surveyed the community on TOSAs: while many liked the ability to dine outside more easily, comfortably, and during a longer season, some did complain about the added noise from so many outdoor restaurants, as well as the decreased ability for pedestrians or bicyclists to get around. But until the lifted its amnesty on temporary outdoor seating in previously unauthorized areas, it was understandable that these restaurants should capitalize on the ability to serve more patrons.
The second reason all this temporary outdoor seating is surprising, and far more important for the purposes of this article: those spaces were hugely in demand for drivers. Rockstar parking. Though this particular strip mall is fundamentally more suburban and auto-oriented in character, it is an outlier in this part of Arlington. Here’s a view from immediately across the street from the strip mall:
Most of this portion of Arlington County is high-density, walkable, and fully urbanized. The strip mall sits at exactly the midpoint between two major WMATA Metro Stops: Rosslyn (the commercial core of the county, which I featured before), and Court House. It’s about a half-mile (ten-minute walk) to either stop, making the area transit rich. And it shows: the County of Arlington has been enabling, through relaxed zoning standards, the construction of high density construction mixed-use skyscrapers near metro stops, using the principles of Transit Oriented Development (TOD). As a result, high-rise structures flank the entire trajectory of the two prime arterials—Wilson and Clarendon boulevards (complementary one-way streets)—an area that as recently as the 1990s hosted much more conventional auto-oriented uses: service stations, car dealerships, old homes converted to offices, and strip malls like the one in these pics. Even the early days of Google Street View, less than fifteen years ago, show a transformed landscape. The most recent photo above, as indicated earlier, reveals the image directly across the street from this strip mall. Here it is in 2009: some of the old single family detached houses still stood. Along busy, high-density Wilson Boulevard, this strip mall is one of the last holdovers from a bygone era.
No doubt with the support of its tenants, the property managers of this strip mall took a huge risk: during the height of the pandemic, they decided to sacrifice about half of the spaces in one of the few plainly visible, off-street surface parking lots remaining on this redeveloped stretch of Wilson Boulevard, turning it into a TOSA. Surface lots in locations like this are usually in such high demand that the property owners pay to monitor and manage, ensuring that the people using the spaces don’t stay too long and patronize stores/restaurants on the property itself, rather than using it as quick-and-easy parking and enjoying amenities up and down the boulevard for hours at a time. Given the demand, the owners could probably monetize the spaces if they wanted to. Instead, these property managers realized that the tenants’ capacity to serve guests transcended the guests’ demand for a convenient space to park. And it seems to have worked; temporary outdoor seating is in greater demand than paring. It doesn’t hurt that the area’s population density is extremely high, at well over 10,000 persons per square mile; the county as a whole has 9,200 persons per square mile and is nearly built out, so this area is much higher. Thousands of people can simply walk to this strip mall. And the easy availability of bus and subway as well as a vigorous bike share system ensures that people have plenty of ways of getting to this strip mall beyond car or foot.
I have not been able to determine Arlington County’s final judgment on TOSAs; I’ll concede I haven’t checked the condition of the temporary outdoor seating here at this strip mall since this visit eleven months ago. But I have every reason to believe the restaurant owners would push to keep it going, given how much they invested in those attractive, four-season canopies. In neighborhoods that are clearly striving for an active street scene, TOSAs are one shiny silver bullet. Or golden goose. Or, the most appropriate analogy all, the guaranteed meal ticket.