BY LINDA BAKER
In Italy, indeed, in most European countries, cafés are a ubiquitous feature in parks and plazas. In Portland, a metropolis that likes to think of itself as “the best European city in America” — a phrase coined by mayoral candidate Charlie Hales a decade ago — cafés in parks are not ubiquitous. To be precise, there are only three permanent food service operations in Portland open spaces: Starbucks in Pioneer Square, a coffee kiosk in South Waterfront Park, and Violetta in Director Park.
Now one of these three faces an uncertain future. Last week, Portland Parks and Recreation announced a search for a new vendor in Director Park. Violetta hasn’t paid rent for a few months, and "it's time to move on," according to Mark Ross, a parks spokesperson. "We’ve tried to give them every opportunity to get things in order," Ross said. "But it hasn’t happened,"
Violetta’s owner, Dwayne Beliakoff, didn’t return phone calls from Oregon Business. But regardless of specific problems facing the restaurant — many thought the food was overpriced — Violetta is not the only privately owned café to struggle in a park setting. McCall’s Waterfront Park restaurant, perhaps the most famous of PDX open-space cafés, struggled for years before closing in 2005.
Portland’s European-style bike and streetcar schemes are well underway. Why can’t we make the park café model work — and why are such businesses so few and far between?
For a design perspective, I turned to landscape architect Lloyd Lindley, who was chair of the Portland Design Commission during the design review for Director Park — a project, by the way that was modeled after an Italian piazza.
Restaurants in parks can be successful, he said. But the Director Park location has its challenges — because it's a confined space on a narrow block and is already surrounded by cafés/restaurants such as Elephants Deli and Pastini, and just blocks from a popular food-cart pod.
Correcting my initial generalization, Lindley said not every plaza in Italy has an on-site café. “Every plaza in Italy has cafes around them," he said. The plazas themselves are “generally served by cafés around the edges and you find that tables spill out from side of building into the piazza.” During the Director Park review process, commission members suggested the park imitate this model, especially since the purpose of the curbless street design, Lindley said, was to "engage with the buildings around it."
Density, vitality and scale are the key ingredients for a successful park café. Those criteria may help explain why McCalls faltered. Front Avenue cut off the restaurant from the density of downtown, leaving too few people, and customers, milling about.
Any discussion of siting cafés in PDX plazas has to include the weather. In the summer, Portland denizens flock to city open spaces. In the winter, not so much. “If there’s a challenge about locating food service in parks, it’s about seasonality,” says Todd Lofgren, Portland Parks property and acquisition manager. Lofgren noted that during the summer, city parks host dozens of successful farmer's markets and mobile food carts — such as the snack vendor in the Washington Park Rose Garden.
Portland has no shortage of food carts or temporary vendors. But permanent well designed buildings can be more powerful activators of the surrounding landscape — the goal of all good urban design. Locating restaurants in parks/plazas can be "a noble mission," suggests Lindley — and the practice may even work in parks outside of downtown. Asked about the suitability of locating a café in a neighborhood greenspace such as Laurelhurst Park, Lindley said: “If you put in a beautiful garden restaurant that drew neighborhood residents and became a magnet for people."
As the city searches for a new vendor for the 840-square-foot Director Park site, there are signs that Portland is trying to extend the plaza café concept, despite the challenges. Last fall, I wrote about the conversion of SW Ankeny into a patio for nearby restaurants and the mini boom in sales that followed. Under the right circumstances, it would seem, cafés and public space are the perfect match — on or off the continent.
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.