Is California Turning on Outdoor Dining?
In July, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to make the city’s emergency outdoor dining ordinance permanent. Adopted in the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program empowered restaurant owners to convert adjacent on-street parking spaces into “parklets” where they could serve pandemic-weary patrons. The city’s parklet initiative, and similar liberalizing policy changes across the state, have kept California’s restaurant industry alive amid recurring lockdowns and surging coronavirus case numbers.
And yet, as recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Golden Gate City’s program to “legalize” outdoor dining could soon force the closure of nearly 90 percent of all parklets. With a ruleset that has ballooned to 64 pages over the past year and a permitting process that Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic described as “part Candy Land, part Kafka,” many restaurateurs are simply giving up. In the meantime, San Francisco regulators continue to issue $500-a-day fines for even minor infractions.
It didn’t need to be this way: back in October, a bipartisan coalition passed SB 314, instructing the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to temporarily allow restaurants to serve alcohol outside, should the local municipality allow it. An onerous pre-pandemic ABC permitting process had been the main reason why outdoor dining was so rare in California, despite our famously amenable climate. Thanks to the bill, restaurateurs won’t have to worry about state regulators micromanaging their outdoor dining setup—at least for the next year.
Yet back at the local level, it has been more of a mixed bag: in the suburbs of Sacramento, Roseville voted to remove “dining decks” from downtown sidewalks this past November, citing concerns over parking. Notably, around the same time, neighboring Rocklin voted to relax the rules for outdoor dining, with restaurateurs pointing out that many patrons are still reluctant to eat indoors.
Down the coast, San Clemente and Manhattan Beach also put the kibosh on converting curb space to outdoor dining in early November, as did Paso Robles and Pismo Beach. In all four cases, as in Roseville, outdoor dining opponents cited concerns over insufficient parking and lost meter revenue. While the concerns over insufficient parking may have been dubious—Roseville restaurateurs pointed to two nearby underutilized parking garages—the lost meter revenue can be a real issue, costing municipalities up to $3,500 annually per space.
When survey results found overwhelming support among residents for permanently easing up on regulations, nearby San Luis Obispo took a slightly more nuanced approach. By one estimate the city was losing an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 in meter fees, so they came up with a compromise: let restaurants engaged in outdoor dining cover those costs with a modest fee. They found that most restaurateurs would be happy to pay up to $10,000 annually, more than covering the cost of lost revenue.
As major cities like Los Angeles and San Diego—and suburbs and towns across the Golden State—commit to permanently liberalizing outdoor dining regulations, they potentially have a lot to learn from these early experiments. For starters, if cities are going to lock in the current al fresco dining renaissance, they need to adopt straightforward permitting processes. Putting a few tables and chairs out on the sidewalk should never require multiple public hearings or rounds of design review, as it now does in San Francisco.
Furthermore, rather than banishing outdoor dining, cities should work with restaurateurs to find workable compromises. In Los Angeles, where outdoor dining is mostly on private parking lots, regulators should take a hands-off approach—all else equal, business owners better know how to use their space than bureaucrats. Where outdoor dining does intrude on the right-of-way, rules should be carefully tailored to ensure health and safety, with modest fees to recuperate any lost parking revenue.
From telehealth to price controls to home-based businesses, the silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to expose those regulations that never made any sense. Our state’s pre-pandemic antagonism to diners enjoying an outdoor lunch, or a glass of wine on an outdoor patio, was one such set of regulations. When regulators stepped back, restaurateurs stepped up, creating outdoor dining areas that not only saved their businesses, but in enlivened and beautified streets across the states. More California cities and towns should change the rules to reflect that.