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Outdoor dining rules in San Diego, loosened during the pandemic, are about to tighten up

Customers dine outdoors in a temporary dining area created in parking spaces at Buona Forchetta in South Park in October.
Customers dine outdoors in a temporary dining area created in parking spaces at Buona Forchetta in South Park in October.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Eateries willing to pay fees can apply for permits to create permanent outdoor dining areas

The temporary program that allowed San Diego restaurants to create outdoor dining areas during the pandemic is ending — and after July 13, the rules about what’s allowed will grow tighter.

Restaurants that want to continue outdoor operations can apply for new permits that will allow them to operate on streets and sidewalks for a two-year period with fees, city officials said on Friday. Applications for the new permanent “Spaces as Places” program, as it’s called, are now being accepted.

Businesses across the city of San Diego will receive letters in coming days from the city’s Development Services Department, notifying them that the temporary outdoor business operations permits are sunsetting and informing them of the new program.

Those that do not apply for Spaces as Places must cease outdoor dining operations by July 13. The dining areas must be restored to their original condition, and all structures or platforms in streets, sidewalks or parking lanes must be removed.

Businesses that have submitted an application for Spaces as Places by July 13 will be allowed to continue outdoor operations while applications are pending. However, that does not guarantee they will be issued permits, as the new program is more restrictive in terms of what structures are allowed and many of the current temporary structures will not comply.

“If someone applies before July 13, we’re going to be flexible,” said Chris Larson, program coordinator for Spaces as Places at Development Services.

The temporary outdoor dining program went into effect in July of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 restrictions on indoor operations. As of Oct. 8, 2021, 453 temporary outdoor business operations permit applications had been approved by the city.

The program’s popularity among customers and business owners resulted in the City Council’s decision to implement the more permanent program.

However, converting to a permanent program means new permitting regulations and fees that weren’t previously required under the temporary initiative.

Spaces as Places permits are only applicable to eating and drinking establishments and property owners will be required to sign an agreement to give permission.

Permits will allow businesses to create sidewalk cafes, convert street parking spaces into dining areas called streetaries, add outdoor dining on private property, or partially or completely close streets to create promenades in areas such as Little Italy or the Gaslamp Quarter. Sidewalks can also be widened into street parking lanes.

Businesses will be subject to annual fees ranging from $10 to $30 per square foot. Fees vary on where in the city the business is located based on a “climate equity index” to determine environmental and socioeconomic factors. Funds from these fees will go toward community improvements.

The annual charge for a two-year permit for a 200-square-foot parklet — the size of an average parking space — would range from $2,000 to $6,000.

Businesses will also be charged a development impact fee, as well as plan-check and inspection fees. The DIF can top $1,000, depending on square footage; the other two fees come to about $1,400.

Many of the temporary structures that were allowed during the pandemic may be ineligible under the new program. They will require major changes and substantial investment to comply with new requirements, Larson said.

“The (temporary) structures that were constructed ... we did not review for compliance,” Larson added. “So, as part of the new requirements, we are going to ensure that there’s a platform, that platform is safe, that it has accessible access.”

Streetaries, for example, will now need to have deck platforms that are flush with the sidewalk, a fixed railing along the perimeter to serve as a barrier to traffic, accessible entries every 10 feet, moveable furniture and more.

Outdoor dining areas will not be allowed along red, blue or white curbs or within an alley. They will also be limited to streets with speed limits of no greater than 30 miles per hour.

Larson says businesses will also be required to work with a licensed engineer to design plans that are compliant with the new regulations, as well as a general contractor.

In the interim, the city is also continuing to enforce current regulations and contacting businesses whose structures violate city and fire codes, said Leslie Sennett, deputy director of the city’s code enforcement division. These violations include overhead coverings like a roof and electrical wiring across sidewalks, both of which are prohibited.

“We’re leading with education first and working with them as much as possible ... to provide operators with instructions,” Sennett said.

All violations must be corrected for temporary structures to remain in place during the Spaces as Places permitting process.

While businesses in the Coastal Zone can also apply for Spaces as Places, permits will not be issued until the California Coastal Commission certifies and approves the new regulations.

The city encourages businesses to apply for the new program as soon as possible due to the extended timeline for the permit review process, Larson said.

Businesses that plan to remove their outdoor dining areas must first obtain a traffic control permit at sandiego.gov/DSD. Following removal, a site inspection will be conducted to ensure the area has been restored to its original condition.

Businesses that do not apply for Spaces as Places and do not remove their outdoor structures by July 13 will be subject to penalties.

For more information on Spaces as Places, visit sandiego.gov/development-services/permits/spaces-as-places. Development Services’ Small Business and Restaurant Assistance Program is available to assist with permitting and planning needs. Businesses can also contact the Economic Development Department at sdbusiness@sandiego.gov or at 619-236-6700 for assistance.


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