Parking or Parklets: Post-Pandemic, Will San Diego Still Eat in the Street?

What are the plans for the county's parklets -- those outdoor dining areas and workout spaces occupying parking spots -- now that the pandemic is ebbing?

Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach
Eric S. Page

With the pandemic beginning to ebb in San Diego County and restaurants and gyms allowing customers back indoors, some people are beginning to wonder: Parking or parklets?

Of all the business sectors affected by the coronavirus pandemic during the past year, none was as creative in its responses -- or had to pivot more -- than eateries. First, they shifted to a takeout model, then, as cities began to be more receptive to the idea, business owners took over parking spots in front of their locations, building outdoor dining areas that, in some cases, rivaled their indoor seating. Sure, many cities waived permit costs, but the expense of constructing them in some cases ran to many thousands of dollars.

Pacific Shores in Ocean Beach
Eric S. Page
Pacific Shores in Ocean Beach

Gyms, too, made the move, with outdoor activity areas sprouting up where once only Toyotas and their four-wheeled cousins roamed.

Now, though, officials are mulling the future of the outdoor spaces, which, in many cases, have a lot of public support. In at least one local city, one of those supporters is a local official. San Diego mayor Todd Gloria, who was a guest in March on NBC San Diego's Scene in San Diego podcast, remarked on the prospect of the parklets' removal: "Forgive me for being humorous in this time, but I often have said, when asked that question, 'Good luck to whoever wants to repeal that. I'd like to see how it works out for them,' because the public has clearly said they want these things, they enjoy them, they're making use of them, and after all that we've put up with in the last year, [how could we] take that joy back from people?"

Gloria said the parklets have an economic impact and that there was a "larger social benefit to activating our streets," adding that they had brought "tremendous vitality" to their communities and that his administration was working on the topic. He added, however, that what business owners had created as temporary solutions in some cases may not have the legs to survive.

"… much of what you see today is there on a temporary basis because of the emergency orders -- and what we want to do is provide the rules for the road to make these things permanent moving foreward," Gloria said in March. "I'll tell you that some of what we have done -- you know what? Maybe, sort of, has not necessarily been ideal. I'm thinking about, like, stormwater, right? How does stuff look in the gutter when the gutter is occupied by dining spaces? Or safety: You know, a lot of this had been done relatively quickly. Are there ways that we could ensure public safety greater?"

While it would appear that a deadline for the demise of San Diego's parklets may be fast approaching, that may not be case, however.

In early April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that the state was aiming to fully reopen by June 15. If that's the case, then the state-mandated social distance guidelines would be suspended -- and the county would likely follow suit in short order. Then, according to the city's website, the temporary permits for the parklets would expire since the county health order would no longer require social distancing.

Mayor Gloria's senior advisor of communications, Dave Rolland, told NBC 7 on Friday, however, that Gloria plans in May to propose a one-year extension of the emergency ordinance regarding the parklets, but moving ahead, there may be new regulations for parklets hinted at by Gloria in the March Scene in San Diego podcast.

“This fall, he will bring forward a permanent ordinance, which will need to be approved by the city council," Rolland wrote in an email. "Restaurants will be required to comply with this new ordinance -- which means new permits and new, permanent structures -- in order to continue providing outdoor dining," adding that the "mayor is committed to working collaboratively with our restaurant community and our business districts to make outdoor dining successful going forward.”

Meanwhile up in North County, where the parklets have popped up in Encinitas, Solana Beach and elsewhere, an official for Carlsbad said there were no plans in the works that would affect local businesses that had received permits for parklets.

"The [permits] issued during the pandemic are temporary, but the city had a program like this already with many participants," Matt Sanford, the city's economic development manager, told NBC 7 in an email on Thursday. "Those permits are not tied to the end of the pandemic."

Sanford did say, however, that the temporary permits issued during the past year would expire when Carlsbad suspends its declaration of a local emergency.

"This would likely be tied to when the county lifts its emergency order," Sanford wrote. "No timing has been discussed for this yet," adding that the "city is committed to supporting our businesses as they recover from this very difficult year. We have loan programs, marketing campaigns and other initiatives already under way. It’s too soon to know when and how outdoor permits might change, but those decisions will be made with input from our business community."

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