San Diego would make outdoor dining permanent for restaurants willing to pay fees

Diners at tables in front of Little Italy's The Waterfront Bar and Grill are separated from the street by metal barriers.
Restaurants like Little Italy’s The Waterfront Bar and Grill could pay fees to make their COVID-19 outdoor dining areas permanent under a new city proposal.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

City would use money to make streets more walkable, boost outdoor dining in low-income areas


Restaurants across San Diego soon may be allowed to make their COVID-19 outdoor dining areas permanent in exchange for paying the city a fee to help make streets and sidewalks more inviting places to hang out.

Some revenue from the new fee would be spent on sidewalk widening, street trees and other upgrades to make streets more appealing to walkers and cyclists. Money from the fee also would help boost outdoor dining in low-income areas.

Called “Spaces as Places,” the proposal unveiled by San Diego officials Monday would essentially make permanent the emergency outdoor dining permits the city issued to restaurants across the city shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

But in exchange for allowing restaurants to permanently expand into outdoor spaces like sidewalks and on-street parking spots, the city would collect a fee to cover recreational amenities that would aim to make streets more like public promenades.

David Garrick on our San Diego News Fix podcast:

The size of the fee paid by each restaurant would be based on the amount of public “right-of-way” land they take over. The fee would be lower if the right-of-way land would be open to the public during hours the restaurant is closed.

Half the revenue from the proposed fee would cover upgrades to right-of-way areas across the city.

The other half would cover efforts to create outdoor dining areas in neighborhoods deemed “communities of concern,” which are typically ethnically diverse neighborhoods where incomes are relatively low.

Members of the City Council praised the proposal Monday as an innovative way to boost restaurants and simultaneously make neighborhoods more appealing to walkers and cyclists.

The city’s climate action plan calls for more people to get around on foot and by bicycle, and less people to get around by car. The proposal could help the city achieve the goals of the plan, which is legally binding.

Council members also praised the proposal for focusing on social equity by directing half the money from the new fee to low-income areas where outdoor dining opportunities have been less common during the pandemic.

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert called the permanent expansion of outdoor dining a “silver lining” of the pandemic, because city officials probably would not have tried it if the pandemic hadn’t made indoor dining dangerous.

Council President Dr. Jennifer Campbell said she supports outdoor dining and efforts to encourage people to walk and bike, but Campbell also expressed concern that the changes could make it harder for older residents to dine out.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that we’re thinking about doing this on a permanent basis, but we have to be very, very careful to remember that a lot of our population is physically unable to do long walks or bike rides or skateboards or scooters,” Campbell said. “We don’t want to leave them out of enjoying life and enjoying these public spaces.”

Campbell said she hopes city officials can find a solution, possibly including parking spots reserved for elderly people. The city proposal would prevent removal of handicapped parking spots.

“I urge you to think twice,” Campbell told city officials. “There needs to be a balance.”

Councilmembers Stephen Whitburn and Sean Elo-Rivera expressed more narrow concerns, such as safety.

“How are we going to prevent cars from crashing into seating that is extended out into what used to be a parking lane or a traffic lane,” Whitburn asked.

City officials said the proposal would include barriers to protect outdoor diners and pedestrians. And outdoor dining would be prohibited on streets where the speed limit is greater than 30 mph.

Outdoor dining would also need to be at least 20 feet from an intersection and not within an alley, bike lane or bus lane. It also could not be near storm drains or fire hydrants. Outdoor dining in residential areas would have more limited hours.

City officials said the proposal includes a variety of options for restaurants and neighborhoods, including curb extensions, public promenades and dining in former restaurant parking lots in areas near transit.

Monday’s unveiling of the proposal came during a meeting of the council’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Committee. City officials said they expect to present the proposal to several other committees before seeking final approval this fall.

Two workshops on the proposal that city officials held in June were attended by more than 150 people, including many restaurant owners. No members of the public spoke for or against the proposal Monday.