Ordinance may legalize Café Nell parking lot dining
By Allan Classen
City Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office considered the livability impacts of Café Nell’s large outdoor dining space in a residential zone, the focus of a February NW Examiner cover story, and decided the problem is the zoning code.
Existing restaurants in residential zones, such as Café Nell at 1987 NW Kearney St., are allowed to continue operating there as long as they do not expand or intensify their activities. Both of those things happened last year when Café Nell converted its former parking lot into a covered dining area to compensate for COVID-related restrictions on indoor seating.
Café Nell constructed a complex of tents and lean-tos with about 70 seats and installed an industrial-grade outdoor heater that exceeded the legal noise limit for residential zones. Amplified music also generated complaints from adjacent neighbors.
Neighbor Renee Mercado took heart when the Bureau of Development Services acknowledged the apparent zoning violation and invited her to file a complaint, to which the agency promised it “is initiating a thorough investigation.”
“It does not seem sensible to allow the continued use of a dangerous, combustible industrial equipment in a residential area for an illegal, non-permitted outdoor establishment,” Jill Grenda, supervising planner for BDS, wrote Mercado in a Jan. 12 email.
Mercado’s hopes for a positive resolution were dashed in February, when another BDS planner, Mike Liefeld told her of a new direction.
“The city is still developing an ordinance to allow all parking lots to be used to support temporary business operations,” Liefeld wrote in a Feb. 10 email. “I know that is not the information you were hoping for.”
Mercado told the Examiner that Liefeld said he knew of no other restaurant that would be affected by the proposed policy.
Ryan’s office told the NW Examiner that the ordinance Liefeld referred to is not moving forward, though another one “to help businesses in the downtown core open safely is being finalized” for council consideration in February.
That timeline has been extended indefinitely.
“This issue is still in the concept stage,” Ryan aide Gwen Thompson told the Examiner. “We don’t believe this one café would be the sole beneficiary of any potential allowance to temporarily allow the expansion of a nonconforming use.”
Café Nell was granted a noise variance last month to allow the heater and speakers to exceed the 55 decibel limit in residential zones.
“Both sound sources were found by the noise control officer to be only slightly over the city’s daytime noise code,” wrote Noise Control Officer Paul van Orden.
The noise variance expires April 30.
Café Nell received a second forgivable loan of $246,344 from the federal Payment Protection Program in January to keep 35 workers on the payroll. The restaurant received $183,280 from the program last year for 20 workers.