Parking to be key challenge in North Bay parklet outdoor dining becoming permanent post-pandemic
After streets served as restaurants in the age of coronavirus-related shutdowns, many North Bay diners think outdoor venues like parklets should remain permanent.
But that will require the blessing of their cities.
Much of the debate hinges on how many parking spaces are eaten up by parklets, defined as parking spaces transformed into outdoor seating. Permits are required to build temporary structures there, and city ordinance changes to stay indefinitely.
With the North Bay’s excellent weather, towns are blanketed with an assortment of outdoor dining venues to allow restaurants to serve food and drink. The options include tables and chairs set up on sidewalks, plexi tents to elevated wooden structures.
“It makes you feel like you’re in Europe. We have amazing weather here in California. We might as well take advantage of it,” Drew Meiser of San Francisco said, while drinking and eating in one with his buddy Jerome Zech at the Tam Commons Tap Room on Fourth Street in San Rafael.
Zech, who lives in town, is all for the idea of keeping the parklets up.
“I kinda love it. To me, it feels like New York City,” he said.
After having a taste of al fresco dining from one end of the North Bay to the other, residents and visitors believe parklets stand to stay popular even with a county like Napa going into the red tier, a less-restrictive COVID-19 classification that allows for indoor dining.
The county seat, Napa, boasts 20 parklets concentrated downtown around Main Street.
“They’re good for people watching,” Raquel Rodriguez said, while enjoying a festive Saturday night with her fellow Napa friends at Be Bubbly at Second and Franklin streets. The trio sat out at a table and chairs on the sidewalk, next to where a long bar table accommodated a group.
Be Bubbly owner Erin Riley was ecstatic about the patrons following protocols, while embracing eating out on a spring-like, warm evening, after being hit by pandemic shutdowns on indoor dining.
Despite moving March 3 to the more relaxed red tier allowing for indoor dining at 25% capacity, Riley will go ahead with her plans to replace the current setup with a more elaborate parklet in front of the restaurant that opened in August. She just received approval from the city and plans to build the $8,000 structure by mid-March.
“This (dining space) just enhances the outdoor experience,” Riley said. “Maybe we could bring a live band in.”
If you build it, they will come
Riley isn’t alone in spending thousands of dollars to entice customers to dine outside during the coronavirus outbreak.
North of Napa, Pizzeria TraVigne managing partner Cynthia Ariosta spent $18,000 for an outside dining tent for her St. Helena restaurant — only to have it sit unused during December’s shelter-in-place order placing a damper on the holidays. It’s why Ariosta joined 50 other restaurants and wineries as a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in mid January against the state government for shutting them down without clear evidence outdoor dining contributed to the outbreak.
The lawsuit was dropped a few weeks later when the establishments were able to open.
Already considered a pedestrian enclave for diners, parklets take up about 30% of Sonoma Plaza’s 330 parking spots. As tourism starts to pick up, Melody Makhif and Kyle Russell, who came up for the weekend from San Francisco, gave parklets a “thumbs up,” while eating out at Oso Sonoma at the Square.
“We’d like them to stay,” she said of the parklets.
Russell added it will take “a while” before a lot of people feel comfortable with eating indoors in the masses.
Another way to calm traffic
That’s precisely what city and state governments are counting on as they lean toward a compromise in allowing North Bay residents and visitors to dine in the street while reducing parking spaces and room on the sidewalks.
Placing more people in the streets has a “calming” effect on traffic. City public works departments use traffic features such as street narrowing and roundabouts to accomplish the same goals in making towns more pedestrian friendly.
“Parklets help calm traffic,” Napa Community Development Director Vin Smith told the Business Journal.
The city is starting “to have conversations” with the Napa Downtown Association about making the parklets permanent, and this means covering “the complications,” he noted.
Loss of parking
These solutions to modern-day transportation issues may come at the expense of reduced parking.
“We need to retrain people to walk a half a block,” Smith said, referring to the tendency of motorists to drive in front of every destination.