Orange City Council members are examining the possibility of making outdoor dining a seasonal feature in historic Old Towne after the pandemic forced many diners throughout OC to adapt new business models.
The council voted Tuesday for staff to research potentially creating a seasonal, recurring outdoor dining space in Orange Plaza Paseo, following a unanimous vote last month to keep outdoor dining open on Glassell Street through the end of the year.
Two roads in the Paseo — Glassell Street and Chapman Avenue — converge at a roundabout in Old Towne Orange and will both close temporarily next month for the annual street fair.
However, Glassell Street has been closed to make space for outdoor dining for the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The council voted Tuesday 5-2 to consider seasonal use of the Paseo, with Council members Arianna Barrios and Ana Gutierrez voting against the idea due to concerns of the Paseo disturbing residents or harming other businesses in Old Towne Orange.
“The only people who seem to benefit are the restaurants,” Barrios said at Tuesday’s meeting. “That unfairness weighs on me.”
Council member Kimberlee Nichols argued that since the city lacks data to consider seasonal outdoor operations at Paseo, it should remain open until the council can revisit the topic at a later date.
“We need to just make sure we have in place something to help our businesses because they are the driving factor for the revenue in our city. We need to let this ride until we get to a point where we have the data,” Nichols said. “Let’s get the information, make the decision, and we can move on as a city.”
Numerous epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors considered indoor dining during the height of the pandemic a high risk situation.
Now there’s questions and concerns swirling around daily activities as the Delta variant is fueling the case surges throughout Orange County and the rest of the state.
Now that indoor dining has mostly resumed in California, many residents are calling for city officials to reopen the street for traffic, saying the outdoor options are no longer needed.
All the public speakers at Tuesday’s council meeting voiced concerns about keeping the Paseo active for long-term use.
Sue Vars, an 18-year Orange resident, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the Paseo takes away from Old Towne Orange’s historic feel.
“I’m asking that you restore the plaza to it’s historic configuration,” Vars said at the meeting. “Now, downtown looks like a carnival and a food court … You must consider the local homeowners.”
Old Towne Orange is one of California’s largest nationally registered historic districts, and many residents voice concerns regarding any changes that would impact the historical significance of the area.
The council directed staff to conduct an environmental study to help determine how the Paseo could return seasonally as an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Tony Trabucco, president of the Old Towne Preservation Association, voiced concern regarding the state’s environmental quality laws at Tuesday’s meeting.
“It’s not clear that the continuation of the temporary Paseo is eligible for exemption from environmental review under several CEQA guidelines,” Trabucco said during public comment. “The current closure of Glassell Street has already lasted longer than 12 months, and the proposed continuation, unlike those prior, is neither time limited nor subject to interim review.”
City Attorney Gary Sheatz argued that since the Paseo is still considered temporary, it does not violate any state environmental guidelines.
At the July 13 council meeting, city staff presented survey results from downtown property owners and merchants, saying nearly all were in favor of a permanent or seasonal use.
Laurel and Gil Yurly, business owners in Paseo, described at the July 13 council meeting how the Paseo has benefited their sales.
“During the tenure of the Paseo, foot traffic in the store and around the plaza has increased significantly,” Gil Yurly said. “We are definitely in favor of keeping the Paseo open.”
In contrast, some residents argue that the closure negatively affected business owners in the area due to the increased traffic.
Greg Steinmann, another business owner on Glassell Street, said at the July 13 meeting that the Paseo has hindered his sales.
“The Paseo has not been good for my business and I don’t think it’s safe … We have a lot of down time,” Steinmann said. “There are no customers coming in. It hasn’t been good. I used to be on a street with traffic, and now I’m essentially in an alley where no one is seeing me.”
The Paseo will return after the completion of the street fair, and remain classified as temporary until the end of the year.
The issue will be revisited again after that to determine further long-term use.
Other cities are grappling with outdoor dining issues as well.
On June 8, Newport Beach council members voted 6-0 to extend temporary use permits that allowed businesses to operate on public property through Sept. 6.
In Santa Ana, the temporary standards for open-air dining will continue for a year.
In Laguna Beach, the promenade, which is used for outdoor dining, will remain active with street closures for the next three years, and the temporary use permits for all other outdoor dining remain through the end of the year.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.