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.

Smith would like to see more people visiting downtown by using the three city-run garages and one operated by Napa County. The parking division has applied for grant funding for signs to encourage such behavior.

If the cities decide the parklets can stay, then the businesses might need to chip in to compensate for the loss in public parking. Details have not been worked out on this proposal.

And cities would need to change their ordinances to have them stay.

For now, outdoor dining spilling into the streets has been accommodated in Napa through an emergency declaration enacted last June allowing for the temporary outdoor commercial activity. There’s no expiration date on it.

Napa officials plan to take up the matter of whether to make these dining features permanent as early as mid-April, City Manager Steve Potter said.

“I see them as an indefinite,” he said. “But we have to take a look at it. There hasn’t been a lot of pushback.”

The goal will involve how to help one industry “without hurting another,” Potter said, referring to retailers possibly balking at losing parking spaces near their businesses.

Still, Potter insists one may assist the other.

“When people are waiting for a table, it creates foot traffic (for retailers),” he said.

Wave of the future?

Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Bodenhamer is convinced parklets represent the wave of the future and a necessary stop-gap measure for a Wine Country economy heavily driven by a good time.

“These parklets are a necessary life raft for our hospitality and restaurant business,” he said, adding that many restaurants have spent an exorbitant amount of money to build them to survive in these trying times.

Recovery from the virus won’t happen overnight, with many hospitality businesses hurt by its impact, he insisted. In the meantime, outdoor dining gives restaurants a way of using the space to spread people out and make it more inviting to eat out in public.

“Even if we hit the red tier (in Sonoma County), the combination of the parklets and indoor dining at 25% (capacity) will at least help these businesses break even,” he said.

“We love them. They’re beautiful, and out of 365 days a year here, there are only a few days in which the weather challenges being outside,” he said.

Sonoma interim City Manager Dave Kiff agrees.

“If the weather stays somewhat mild, they remain attractive,” he said.

This means crossing one’s fingers that summer and fall wildfires won’t bring debilitating smoky conditions.

Kiff said the city would consider the proposal of extending the temporary commercial activity beyond its Nov. 21 expiration.

“In 2022, we may be talking about making them permanent,” he said. Meanwhile, Kiff anticipates the city council will revisit the practice in the next few months.

To the north end of Sonoma County, Windsor has turned parklets into a prominent fixture in the downtown area.

Windsor Town Manager Ken MacNab said the parklets that cover a downtown zone around McClelland Drive and Windsor Road are allowed under a temporary program that expires at the end of 2021.

“They’ve been very successful. Once indoor dining opens up (in Sonoma County), it will be interesting to see if they’re as popular,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the town’s residents have the appetite for wanting them to become permanent landmarks. It would mean motorists would need to give up prized parking spaces. It would also require a change in the city ordinance.

“What has certainly come out of COVID is a creative solution to get people to support local business,” Windsor Economic Development Manager Tim Ricard said.

The big question remains whether competing interests will work together on a compromise between human and vehicle.

“Parking is always a concern in downtown Windsor, and parklets do take up a fair amount of parking,” Ricard said, adding the town government has absorbed some pushback from the new practice.

About 75% of Windsor restaurants have some form of outdoor dining.

Ricard said the town allows for parklets with one wall and no ceiling, so heating lamps don’t pose a fire hazard. And erecting a parklet requires a building permit.

Other than that, most city officials have mentioned being quite accommodating in respect to allowing for the wide variety of creations.

Under the temporary order, Windsor — like other jurisdictions — allows for open containers of alcohol. In June, the town will decide on that delicate matter that has reared up in every town that hosts street festivals and events.

“We’re looking for whatever we can do to help restaurants do business,” he said.

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