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Like dining on the street? San Diego decides to make pandemic experiment permanent for restaurants

A customer takes in an outdoor meal at Ortega's Cocina in Ocean Beach in December.
A customer takes in an outdoor meal at Ortega’s Cocina in Ocean Beach in December.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As the city prepares to implement new regulations that will go into effect in July, fire and code enforcement officials are still cracking down on restaurants that built outdoor structures in violation of codes.

A more than year-long experiment in outdoor dining meant to help financially battered San Diego restaurants outlast the COVID-19 pandemic will become a permanent fixture as a result of action taken by the City Council.

“Spaces as Places,” a first-of-its-kind program in San Diego approved Oct. 26, includes new outdoor dining regulations that will allow restaurant owners to have outdoor seating on sidewalks and metered and unmetered parking spaces in front of their venues as long as they pay a fee, a requirement that until now has not been imposed.

The City Council’s second reading of the ordinance is expected in November, and the program will go into effect in July, when the current one expires. It will include several design and safety regulations that will permit restaurants to install platforms for seating along unpainted, yellow or green curbs as long as they are at least 20 feet from an intersection, a street corner, an alley or a driveway.

Such outdoor dining areas, however, will not be allowed along red, blue or white curbs or in an alley. They also will be limited to streets with speed limits of no more than 30 mph, an aspect of the new ordinance that elicited some differences of opinion among council members.

Members Joe LaCava and Sean Elo-Rivera dissented in the 6-2 vote, contending the public would be better protected if the upper speed limit is 25 mph.

While the council agreed to set the maximum speed limit at 30 mph, some members pointed out that a new state law going into effect Jan. 1 will allow municipalities to reduce speed limits along city streets. They encouraged city staff to pursue that in hopes of eventually ensuring that all outdoor cafes in the public right of way are only on streets with a maximum 25 mph limit.

San Diego’s foray into expanded outdoor dining last year was such a success for restaurants struggling to navigate ever-changing rules for indoor dining that city officials decided to come up with a plan to keep the popular program in place permanently.

Some City Council members said the expansion of outdoor dining has been one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic.

“The businesses are really depending on the ingenuity of the city to help them recover,” said Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert. “As we know, the economic impacts of this pandemic are not nearly over.”

Though businesses so far have escaped having to pay fees for the right to have what city planners call “streetaries” (also known as parklets) in the public right of way, they will now be subject to annual fees for two-year permits, ranging from $10 to $30 a square foot. The fees vary depending on where in the city the businesses are located. The San Diego Planning Department is employing a “climate equity index” that relies on environmental and socioeconomic factors for determining whether a business owner will pay $10, $20 or $30 per square foot.

For example, the annual charge for a two-year permit for a 200-square-foot parklet would range from $2,000 to $6,000. The average parking space takes up about 200 square feet.

A more nominal development impact fee also will be charged.

Some of the revenue from the new permit fee would be used to fully recover the costs of administering and enforcing the program, but remaining funds could be spent on projects such as widening sidewalks, expanding bikeways and other upgrades to make streets more appealing to walkers and cyclists. Money from the fees also would help boost outdoor dining in lower-income areas.

Even as the city gears up to implement the new program, it is still cracking down on businesses that either failed to secure permits for their structures early on or built them in violation of city and fire codes. Some restaurants built roofs on their parklets thinking they were allowed, only to learn later that they are not permitted and must be removed.

Among the violations that code compliance investigators have seen are decks and railings higher than 45 inches and overhead coverings like a roof. Another issue is that tent structures and canopies were allowed for temporary use only, defined as 180 days or less, according to the California fire code, and now they have to be removed.

“It’s not the intent of the department to be punitive,” Development Services Director Elyse Lowe said. “We are trying to get compliance so that businesses can continue to operate in a safe manner. We’re not here to take money from small businesses; in fact, just the opposite. We’ve been incredibly lenient in allowing a temporary use that’s never been allowed in the city so they can make it through this difficult time the pandemic has caused.”

Critics of streetaries have raised concerns about loss of parking and the structures’ appearance and argued that such dining spaces were intended only for the pandemic and should not be extended long-term.

Supporters of those and other forms of outdoor dining say they enliven the community and help attract customers to surrounding businesses.

In addition to permanently allowing dining along city streets, the new regulations cover other options, including curb extensions where the sidewalk is permanently extended into the parking lane, public promenades via the closure of entire streets, and dining in privately owned restaurant parking lots.

Before the new regulations can take effect in coastal areas of the city, they will have to pass muster with the California Coastal Commission, which city officials think can happen before July.


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