SANTA CRUZ – Al fresco dining was crucial for local restaurants to survive during the pandemic as it allowed them to continue serving customers safely as COVID continued to spread throughout the community.
Currently, the city manages 96 outdoor operating permits. They consist of 37 parklets, 13 sidewalk dining areas, 34 private terraces and 12 fitness programs, according to Business Liaison Rebecca Unitt. Most of the permits are for downtown businesses, but they have spread throughout the city, including the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.
“We’ve had 96 permits and we’ve had five business closings,” Unitt said. “Any business closure is extremely devastating, but I think it also speaks to the power and impact of this program which can be a lifeline for businesses.”
The parklets have been so well received that Santa Cruz is exploring ways to make the program permanent. However, the implementation of a permanent program could take about a year.
Currently, the city’s temporary parking program ends on December 31. Part of Tuesday night’s discussion near the end of the board meeting urged the board to extend the temporary program for another year until December 31, 2022.
Council ordered city staff to return to council for its second meeting in October with a revised temporary parking program. The extension will give municipal staff the opportunity to write the permanent program. Several aspects need to be adjusted to create a more streamlined program.
The first is to create a cohesive design that restaurants can use to model their parklets. The idea is to improve the security of the parklets. Unitt acknowledged that companies have done what they can with limited time and budgets, but now wants to create a standard for the addition.
“We would work with companies to review existing temporary fleets for any modifications,” Unitt said.
Examination of the existing parklets will begin in September, according to a schedule provided by the Economic Development Department. The review is expected to last around two months and end in November, when the city finalizes the design guidelines.
The city also hopes to expand the areas where parklets are allowed. In the downtown area, parklets are only found in the 1100 block of Pacific Avenue and the partial closure of Cathcart Street, places that the original pilot program did not allow them to be. Therefore, the city must take the time to revise the program to allow the parklets to be on Pacific Avenue after the temporary program ends.
The city is also considering expanding the area to Beach Street or parts of the western part “where appropriate,” Unitt said. The city does not know when this step of the process will take place or how long it will take, as it has not yet coordinated this step of the project with the planning commission.
Finally, the city must revise the tariff structure of the program. Currently, the city has a fee to register for the program. For private spaces, the money stops there. However, for businesses that would need to use the street or sidewalk space for alfresco dining, the city includes a parking fee, according to economic development director Bonnie Lipscomb.
Revising the program to make it permanent should not take the whole year. However, the city wanted to give businesses time to go through the licensing process so there was no gap between temporary and permanent programs. The authorization process is expected to begin sometime in 2022, according to the schedule.
“I want to thank you all across economic development for all the hard work you have done in trying to make these outdoor dining opportunities come true,” Board Member Justin Cummings. “(They are) something that, as Rebecca mentioned, has been a lifeline for many companies. So many businesses want to be compliant, and that helps them comply with county guidelines. “