Many Orange County cities who Switched to outdoor dining and retail during the pandemic aren’t looking back anytime soon.
Last year, cities across Orange County approved outdoor dining ordinances allowing restaurants and retailers to take their business out to parking lots and sidewalks in an effort to help them survive the economic devastation of the pandemic.
Now, some cities are looking to make the outdoor programs permanent.
While many residents have expressed support for outdoor dining — even comparing it to the eateries of Europe — others have raised concerns with the impacts it has had on public parking and safety.
Nonetheless, multiple cities in the county are extending their outdoor dining ordinances or programs.
Laguna Beach is the latest city to grapple with the issue, while other cities have extended their programs.
“In reality, this is a humanity issue. This is an issue about people going out and enjoying themselves. When we opened up the parklets, we not only helped some restaurants, but we actually helped the residents come out that were cooped up in their houses,” Laguna Beach City Councilman Peter Blake said at a special council meeting last Wednesday.
“There’s no taking away outdoor dining from people.”
At that meeting, Laguna Beach City Councilmembers voted unanimously to extend their outdoor dining program through January 1, 2024 and next year they’re going to start charging business a fee for taking up public space.
The fee is intended to help offset city costs for things like parking displacement caused.
According to a city staff report, the program has resulted in a reduction of 63 parking spaces in downtown and the city has had to enter into parking agreements with private property owners to mitigate the loss in parking.
“We found today, when we look at the average utilization during enforceable parking hours, that there’s no significant impact to parking attributed to these parklets and outdoor dining options,” said Jeremy Frimond, the city’s senior management analyst, at the meeting
But others in the city say the parklets — sidewalk extensions typically installed on parking spots — have caused parking problems including Councilwoman Toni Iseman with residents finding no place to park.
”We are not doing other businesses that aren’t restaurants a favor by blocking parking in that area,” she said about outdoor dining and retail on Ocean Avenue. “I’m just seeing a loss of city revenue because if they were parking places, we get money for the parking places.”
“To imply that we don’t have a parking problem in the downtown isn’t true.”
City Manager Shohreh Dupuis noted some restaurants went out of business during the pandemic and the ones that survived are going through significant financial hardships and face ongoing challenges surrounding supply costs and staffing.
Several business owners either showed up to the meeting or called in to express support for the extension and said outdoor dining saved their business. Many thanked the council for the program.
Some restaurant owners also said customers feel safer outside and others said the outdoor dining attracts business for neighboring retailers.
“We made something so beautiful. Look around, walk around, it is lively, the vibe is more fun, locals sit down, hang out, talk and laugh with friends,” said Tanya Tra, owner of The Wharf. I have a lot of old people coming in, if I don’t have the outside, they will not sit down, they will walk away.”
Some Laguna Beach residents called for a shorter extension worried about the parking impact as well as sharing concerns that the sidewalk extensions unfairly benefit certain businesses.
“A much better approach is to limit the extension to a six month basis, at which time there can be a reevaluation and another extension if appropriate,” said Anne Caenn, President of Village Laguna. “ We are particularly concerned that a two year extension will build expectations that these guiding areas should be permanent.”
Some residents want outdoor dining to become permanent like Councilman Peter Blake.
“The real conversation should be about the locals who eat out and the locals who eat out are loving the parklets,” he said.”I love seeing everything that these restaurants are bringing and matter of fact, I’d venture to say that there are more locals at any given time that there are tourists that are in these spaces.”
City council members decided last Wednesday they’d collect a $1,000 base rate from business owners for the program, along with $7 per square foot of the outdoor dining area every year for businesses taking up public parking areas.
The fees are slated to take effect next July and be revisited after the first year to address loss of parking revenue.
Laguna Beach isn’t the only city extending outdoor dining.
Other OC Cities Keep Outdoor Dining Alive For Now
Earlier this month, Costa Mesa City Council members unanimously extended outdoor dining through 2022 at their meeting on Nov. 2. They also directed staff to return with recommendations to incentivize and allow outdoor dining on a permanent basis in the future.
“This has been an overwhelming success for businesses proving that we can do all this stuff outdoors, proving that people really do want to walk and bike,” said Councilwoman Andrea Marr at the meeting.
Some Costa Mesa business owners and residents came out to the meeting to support an extension including longtime resident Flo Martin.
“I recommend that Costa Mesa become one of these vibrant street life cities that attract people from all over California or all over Southern California to enjoy the street life. Our streets belong to all of us. They are public property,” Martin said.
In Orange, city council members voted 5-2 Oct. 13 to move forward with creating a seasonal outdoor dining program at Orange Plaza Paseo.
The council also approved advising The Arroyo Group to look into designing sidewalk extensions to increase space for outdoor dining on Glassell Street in the same motion. This change would open up the street for traffic flow, as the area has been closed since July 2020.
Councilmembers Arianna Barrios and Ana Gutierrez voted against the items because they only supported the sidewalk extension item. The two council members voiced cost and time as reasoning against the seasonal paseo.
Paul Sitkoff, Orange’s public information officer, clarified that a progress report will return to the council in December to update the seasonal paseo and design for sidewalk outdoor dining.
In September, Fullerton city council members voted to extend their outdoor dining for another six months.
“They’re (outdoor dining areas) wildly popular and they’re very successful and so I wouldn’t like to see anything that would dampen what we have begun in Fullerton,” said Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker at the city council meeting.
Councilman Fred Jung expressed concern about overcrowding and public safety and called for greater regulation at the meeting.
That same month, Newport Beach City Council members voted 6-0 to extend the use of temporary emergency use permits until the end of 2021.
John Pope, spokesman for Newport Beach, said restaurants with existing permits will continue through the end of the year and they can reapply for a 2022 permit.
The council had previously extended the permits from June 8 to Sept. 6.
Similarly, Huntington Beach City Council members also voted in September to extend the temporary closure of the second block of Main Street to vehicular traffic through the end of the year. The street originally closed in September 2020.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.