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Expanded outdoor dining isn’t going away anytime soon, San Diego council decides

Cafe Coyote in Old Town
The lunch crowd at Cafe Coyote in Old Town takes advantage of San Diego’s sunny weather to dine outside for lunch. The San Diego City Council has extended for one year temporary regulations that allow expanded seating in the public right-of-way.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Temporary regulations allowing restaurant seating to move onto sidewalks and city streets have been extended for one year as city planners devise a system to make expanded al fresco dining permanent

San Diego’s grand experiment to temporarily allow restaurants and other businesses to take over streets and sidewalks during the pandemic will be extended for one more year as city planners mull how to make expanded outdoor dining a permanent fixture in the city.

The City Council on Tuesday agreed in an 8-0 vote to extend what are still temporary regulations, first enacted last July, through July 13 of next year. That extension will give the city’s planning department time to craft permanent rules governing how restaurants and other businesses like shops and gyms will be legally allowed to take over public rights-of-way. The new “Spaces as Places” program, as it is being called, is expected to return to the council in the fall.

The interim rules, which were quickly embraced by restaurants, offered a streamlined permitting process that allowed businesses to move their operations onto sidewalks and into parking lanes along city streets and in some cases build elevated platforms or decking for seating. Others took over private parking lots, which did not require a special permit.

While city officials say the nearly year-long experiment in al fresco dining has proven to be enormously popular with both the public and business owners struggling to survive a cycle of pandemic-fueled openings and closings since March of last year, enforcement of the interim regulations has been spotty.

As a result, Tuesday’s action comes with a warning. City officials will be stepping up enforcement of fire, building and municipal codes and are setting a deadline of July 13 for compliance, after which non-compliant businesses could face revocation of their permits.

At one point, there were some 800 fire code violations relating to outdoor business operations, said Elyse Lowe, director of San Diego’s Development Services department. The city noted in its staff report that there are currently about 100 code enforcement cases involving temporary outdoor businesses.

In February, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department personnel began reaching out to business owners to educate them on the proper installation of temporary outdoor structures to ensure safety and remind them of the need to obtain the proper municipal permit. Fire officials had become concerned about such things as the improper use of heaters too close to fabric tents and erecting walled tents that don’t allow for cross-ventilation.

In many instances, businesses have also gone beyond what is allowed, installing overhead structures that will now have to come down, Lowe said. Others encroached into fire lanes or spaces for the disabled.

“We took a soft-handed approach in terms of educating businesses,” Lowe said. “There is a fine balance between helping businesses and putting the hammer on them. But now we have to do the enforcement.”

She acknowledges that while the city has received a number of complaints about operators in violation of the municipal code, the largest volume of feedback has been related to whether street-side dining will be allowed to remain, long past the easing of the pandemic. On June 15, California’s color-coded, tiered reopening system is expected to end, which will allow business owners to more widely expand their occupancy levels.

“The public and businesses have responded so well, and we get so many complaints of why can’t we do this all the time, why did we have to wait for a pandemic,” Lowe said.

Mayor Todd Gloria, who has pushed to see the outdoor program made permanent, hailed its success so far.

“While this program was launched as a temporary solution to a devastating situation, we have seen the benefits of allowing expanded outdoor dining and shopping in our communities,” Gloria said in a statement following the council hearing. “As a city, we are committed to exploring ways to make this a more permanent feature beyond the pandemic, creating an environment where businesses can thrive and our residents and visitors can enjoy what San Diego has to offer.”

Council members were generally laudatory of the program but some expressed concerns about unintended inequities in certain neighborhoods where zoning doesn’t allow for expanded outdoor seating and less well-heeled owners don’t have the financial wherewithal to create al fresco spaces that can cost thousands of dollars.

“There are a lot of concerns I have of creating kind of a haves and have-nots when it comes to getting these outdoor spaces off the ground,” said Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera, who called the temporary program “an awesome” idea. “We know that access to capital can be a real issue. Outdoor spaces being as attractive as they are, we could really find ourselves in a situation where those businesses that were best positioned financially are able to elevate themselves another notch above those who are struggling to get by and therefore making their businesses more attractive and making it more difficult for businesses in other parts of the city to succeed.”

Elizabeth Studebaker of the city’s Economic Development Department noted that grant money of up to $5,000 per business is available to those interested in modifying existing structures or putting in place new outdoor seating areas.

To date, the city’s development services department has received 544 applications for temporary outdoor business operations, and of those 427 have been approved. In addition, it has granted a number of special event permits allowing for the closure on select days of several streets, among them India Street between Beech and Grape streets in Little Italy, 5th Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter and a portion of Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla.

Breakfast Republic founder Johan Engman said that the temporary outdoor business regulations proved helpful to six of his 14 San Diego locations and he welcomes the opportunity to refine his exterior seating areas in conformance with whatever new, permanent regulations emerge. He estimates his company spent about $15,000 per location for his expanded patio seating.

“We would not have gone under as a company but if anything, it was a huge morale booster because we could stay open and keep employees employed and avoid another complete shutdown,” Engman said. “So that is the biggest thing.”

He said he understands that tighter enforcement and clearer rules are coming, which he welcomes.

“If I have to invest more money and know I can keep it a year more and then permanently I’d be happy with that,” Engman said. “Being able to know you can have it for a long time is different from being told you can put this in but it has been super vague and there was no answer how long I could have it.”

City planning officials say that the new permanent outdoor program it envisions will not be strictly about outdoor dining. It will be designed to make city streets and sidewalks more welcoming with a variety of recreational amenities, public art and cultural exhibits designed to spur community gatherings.


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