Expanded outdoor dining won’t go away anytime soon, San Diego council decides

San Diego’s grand experiment to temporarily allow restaurants and other businesses to take over streets and sidewalks during the pandemic will be extended by one year, as city planners consider how to do restoration outdoors a permanent feature of the city.

On Tuesday, May 18, the city council agreed in an 8-0 vote to extend what are still temporary regulations, first adopted last July, until July 13 of next year. This extension will give the city’s planning department time to develop permanent rules governing how restaurants and other businesses like shops and gymnasiums will be legally allowed to take control of public rights-of-way. The new “Spaces as Places” program, as it is called, is expected to return to council in the fall.

The interim rules, which were quickly adopted by restaurants, offered a streamlined licensing process that allowed businesses to move their activities to sidewalks and into parking lanes along city streets and in some cases , to build raised platforms or terraces to sit on. Others have taken over private parking lots, which did not require a special permit.

While city officials say the nearly a year of outdoor dining experience has proven to be hugely popular with the public and business owners struggling to survive a cycle of openings and closings. Closures fueled by a pandemic since March of last year, enforcement of interim regulations has been inconsistent.

As a result, Tuesday’s action comes with a warning. City officials will step up enforcement of fire, building and city codes and set a July 13 deadline for compliance, after which non-compliant businesses could face revocation of their permits.

At one point, there were some 800 fire code violations related to outdoor business activities, said Elyse Lowe, director of the San Diego Department of Developmental Services. The city noted in its staff report that there are currently around 100 law enforcement cases involving temporary outdoor businesses.

In February, staff from the San Diego Fire and Rescue Service began contacting business owners to advise them on the proper installation of temporary outdoor structures to ensure safety and to remind them of the need for ” obtain the appropriate municipal permit. Firefighters had become concerned about such things as the improper use of heaters too close to fabric tents and erecting walled up tents that did not allow cross ventilation.

In many cases, companies have also gone beyond what’s allowed, installing overhead structures that will now have to collapse, Lowe said. Others encroached on fire alleys or spaces for people with disabilities.

“We have taken a flexible approach in terms of business education,” Lowe said. “There is a good balance between helping businesses and giving them the hammer. But now we have to do the enforcement. “

She acknowledges that although the city has received a number of complaints about operators in violation of the municipal code, the greatest volume of comments has been linked to whether street food will be allowed to stay, long afterward. pandemic mitigation. On June 15, California’s color-coded multi-level reopening system is expected to end, allowing business owners to expand their occupancy levels more widely.

“The public and business have responded so well, and we get so many complaints about why we can’t do this all the time, why have we had to wait for a pandemic,” Lowe said.

Mayor Todd Gloria, who has insisted that the outdoor program become permanent, praised its success so far.

“Although this program was launched as a temporary solution to a devastating situation, we have seen the benefits of enabling an expansion of outdoor restaurants and shops in our communities,” Gloria said in a statement following the ‘council hearing. “As a city, we are committed to exploring ways to make it a more permanent feature beyond the pandemic, creating an environment where businesses can thrive and where our residents and visitors can enjoy what San Diego has to offer. ”

Council members generally praised the program, but some expressed concerns about unintentional inequalities in some neighborhoods where zoning does not allow for more outdoor seating and where less well-off homeowners do not have the means. financial means to create outdoor spaces that can cost thousands of dollars. of dollars.

“There are a lot of worries that I have of creating a kind of haves and have-nots when it comes to getting these outdoor spaces off the ground,” said city councilor Sean Elo-Rivera, who called the program temporary. of “brilliant” idea. “We know that access to capital can be a real problem. With outdoor spaces as attractive as they are, we could really find ourselves in a situation where the best-positioned companies are able to rise a notch above those who are struggling to fend for themselves. and therefore to make their businesses more attractive and make them more difficult for businesses in other parts of the city to succeed. “

Elizabeth Studebaker, of the city’s economic development department, noted that grants of up to $ 5,000 per business are available for those who wish to modify existing structures or set up new outdoor rest areas.

To date, the city’s development services department has received 544 requests for temporary outdoor business operations, of which 427 have been approved. In addition, it has granted a number of special event permits allowing the closure on certain days of several streets, including India Street between Beech and Grape streets in Little Italy, 5th Avenue in the Gaslamp district and part of Avenida de la Playa. in La Jolla.

Breakfast Republic founder Johan Engman said the temporary outdoor activity regulations have proven helpful for six of his 14 San Diego locations and he welcomes the opportunity to fine-tune his outdoor seating in accordance with any new permanent regulations that emerge. He estimates his business spent around $ 15,000 per location for his expanded patio seating.

“We wouldn’t have gone bankrupt as a company, but it was actually a huge morale boost because we could stay open and keep employees employed and avoid another full shutdown,” Engman said. “So that’s the most important thing.”

He said he understands that stricter enforcement and clearer rules are coming, which he welcomes.

“If I have to invest more money and I know I can keep it for another year and would be happy with that permanently,” Engman said. “Being able to know that you can have it for a long time is different from being told you can bring it in, but it was very vague and there was no answer for how long I could. to have.”

Planning officials say the new permanent outdoor program it is considering will not be strictly about alfresco dining. It will be designed to make the city’s streets and sidewalks more welcoming with a variety of recreational amenities, public art and cultural exhibits designed to stimulate community gatherings.

– Lori Weisberg is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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