Napa, Marin, Sonoma counties retain pandemic-era ‘parklets’ as permanent fixtures
A symbolic green light to pandemic recovery, Main Street in Napa between Second and Third streets is busy again. But this time — vehicles dominate the road.
The block was closed to motor traffic in August 2020, a concession to its restaurant owners during the pandemic who created spots for outdoor dining.
Even though the city’s decision to reopen that section of downtown road proves too costly to convert into a pedestrian mall ($1.5 million), outdoor dining remains in other areas of Napa.
Overall, the eating-outside trend quickly caught on among weekend frolickers all over the North Bay. And still, the love of the outdoors hasn’t subsided — even in a season known to bring people inside to cozy settings.
Sure, some merchants and citizens grumbled about the lack of parking, most city officials said. But in the end, many of those complaints have dwindled, and most North Bay cities have been willing to trade some spaces for dining Paris-style.
At the onset of COVID-19, California public health restrictions put down the hammer on indoor dining. The result was the birth of “parklets” or wooden, open-air structures that allowed diners to eat and drink outside in cordoned off sidewalks or parking spaces.
North Bay cities from Sausalito and San Anselmo to Petaluma and Napa and beyond resembled European towns. Napa hosted many structures and outdoor dining spaces throughout the downtown area. To this day, Napa has 14 parklets.
Napa Community Development Director Vin Smith said the parklets haven’t overstayed their welcome. Residents and visitors, as well as the City Council have supported them — even if it means fewer parking spaces downtown. The city contends it has parking structures to accommodate visitors and residents.
Elsewhere in the city, Napa is allowing restaurateurs to install parklets. They must pay a fee amounting to $10 per square foot annually.
“The community has embraced them, and we benefit from them. Downtown has a vibrancy now,” Smith said. “We saw no adverse impact by giving up parking spaces.”
Napa isn’t alone in taking advantage of the outdoor dining craze.
Also in the Napa Valley in Yountville, Washington Street, coined the term “Street Activation Program.” This features a dozen tasting rooms and restaurants that were given permission to spill their dining rooms out in the public spaces.
“We’ve always had some level of outdoor dining, and some (diners) have moved inside, but we went ahead and adopted the program in spring,” City Manager Steve Potter said.
Across the Wine Country
In the Sonoma County seat, the city of Santa Rosa adopted a proposal in September for 22 restaurants to opt into the permanent program, when it saw how much the community embraced the parklets.
“We doubled down on permanent parklets. We know the restaurant industry’s business margins aren’t that great. The ability to have a parklet even brought a couple of new restaurants to us,” Santa Rosa Economic Development Division Director Raissa de la Rosa said.
Granted, there are government guidelines attached and encroachment fees to pay.
She estimates half of the 22 eateries have received their permits. The city has also developed a grant program to encourage restaurants to move forward with creating the space. In de la Rosa’s eyes, some diners — whether for virus or weather reasons — will want to eat out year-round.
“I was eating outside last night,” she said.
Further north, Healdsburg has also developed a permanent program for the parklets covering 50 parking spaces dotting the city. Starting Jan. 1, they’ll need a three-year license to do so.
City Manager Jeff Kay credits the parklets as a necessity during challenging times.
Due south, Windsor has stopped short of making them permanent.Nevertheless, the town has extended the practice for its nine parklets through next March.
“One of our key issues is parking,” Windsor Community Development Director Tim Ricard said. “We’re not quite ready to make them permanent or remove them (either).”
Further east, the city of Sonoma opted to abandon the parklets — which at the height of the pandemic, dominated the downtown area surrounding its town square.
“The council decided to take them out,” interim City Manager Sue Casey said, referring to the dozen or so outdoor dining structures.
The decision came on the heels of controversy when Girl & the Fig and El Dorado Kitchen managers complained about the city’s construction and safety codes being too restrictive. Non-compliance would have resulted in as much as a $500-a-day fine.
In Marin County, San Rafael and Corte Madera have also opted to keep the parklets around — in the case of Corte Madera, at least temporarily.
Corte Madera’s temporary concessions run through March. It currently has two parklets in the Old Corte Madera Square at the Zinz Wine Bar and Lighthouse Café.
“It’s likely that’ll be extended again,” Senior Planner Martha Battaglia said of the program. But the city will need to weigh the trade-off of parking for more outdoor dining options.
In San Rafael, Director of Economic Development Micah Hinkle said the parklets have created “an inviting environment,” so much so, the city was willing to waive fees to have them.
“This was a change for the city,” Hinkle said.
Knowing all about change, Valon Grajqevci took over the Tams Commons Tap Room and Kitchen on Fourth Street a few weeks ago with high aspirations to accommodate many customers looking for a place to eat and view that covers the downtown area.
“I can tell you from other businesses and friends that they are so super important to business now,” he said.
Statewide, parklets have become “a lifeline,” California Restaurant Association spokeswoman Sharokina Shams noted.
Shams cited a recent online study released by Data Essential, an information research firm, in which most restaurants nationwide reduced their operations by six- to eight hours. It found that, in 2022, the average restaurant was open 6.4 fewer hours than in 2019. Chicago was on the top of the list of 15 major ZIP codes with the most lost weekly hours — 20. At a decline of more than 19 lost hours, New York City held the distinction of monopolizing over half the list of ZIP codes.
Why is that?
“I think the big reason is California took advantage of outdoor dining,” Shams said she believes. “This is something our (restaurant) members have been telling us.”
Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach Wood at 530-545-8662 or email@example.com.