Outdoor dining venues near San Diego beaches face new requirement to replace public parking they occupy

A customer takes in a meal at an on-street patio in Ocean Beach in December 2020.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Restaurants in San Diego’s beach areas are facing a tough new regulation for outdoor dining that will require them to replace any lost parking they occupy on public streets.

The new requirement, approved Dec. 14 by the California Coastal Commission during a hearing in Long Beach, threatens to upend plans by restaurateurs close to the beach who are looking to retain outdoor seating areas they had placed in the street during the COVID-19 pandemic, when mandated closures of indoor dining sharply curtailed business.

Restaurants would have to replace any public parking they occupy with an equivalent number of spaces. The spaces would be provided either onsite or through a shared parking agreement with a third party, such as a nearby business or residential complex that might have extra private parking.

The commission argued that without the condition on parking spaces, the public’s access to the shoreline could be impeded.

According to a commission staff report, “streetaries” (outdoor dining areas that serve as an extension of restaurants in places previously used for public parking) and off-street parking spaces converted to dining areas would be affected, specifically in the “beach impact area,” a stretch of coastline that begins at the northern end of the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in La Jolla and runs about 15 miles south to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in Point Loma. For most areas of the zone, the boundary extends inland approximately a quarter-mile. The commission describes that area as having chronic public parking shortages.

The remainder of the wider coastal zone in San Diego would not be subject to the added regulation.

Tough new regulations for outdoor dining

The commission was required to weigh in because San Diego’s new “Spaces as Places” program for outdoor dining requires a change to Local Coastal Programs, which serve as planning documents for coastal communities.

Spaces as Places, which went into effect in most of the city in mid-July, establishes design and safety regulations for eating and drinking areas placed on parking spaces on city streets and other outdoor public places and provides a process for existing temporary operations to transition to permanent. Businesses must comply with the new regulations and pay fees to be granted a two-year permit under Spaces as Places.

However, the program couldn’t take effect in the coastal zone — which includes Ocean Beach and Point Loma — until it was reviewed and certified by the Coastal Commission.

“I would expect more than a few of these restaurants will not be able to provide replacement parking because it’s already so impacted down there and they would not be able to get [an outdoor dining] permit,” Coastal Program Analyst Alex Llerandi told the commissioners. “They would have to remove the dining area and restore the area to public parking spaces.”

Commission staff said the parking requirement is necessary to maintain adequate access to the beach areas, which are typically frequented by people driving by car as opposed to using mass transit.

“While the Spaces as Places program is expected to improve pedestrian-oriented amenities and promote alternate modes of transit, there are potential adverse impacts to public access associated with the program and limited information on how much of a benefit the program will have,” according to a staff report to commissioners.

The city of San Diego had not included any requirement of its own related to the replacement of lost parking but does not oppose the Coastal Commission’s new regulation.

“While the requirement to provide replacement of removed on-street parking may be challenging for some businesses to achieve, the beach impact area is a relatively small area within coastal communities that are subject to higher levels of traffic congestion and parking needs,” said San Diego spokeswoman Tara Lewis.

Commissioners acknowledged that the city faces a delicate balancing act in accommodating the needs of restaurateurs and members of the public who wish to easily access the coast.

“I love seeing more walkable streets for sure, but I’m also concerned about the privatization of public space,” said Commissioner Linda Escalante. ◆


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