Steve Billings couldn’t believe it.
He got a permit and spent about $10,000 on an outdoor dining area right outside The Original 40 Brewing Company. He anticipated he’d be able to keep the parklet along University Avenue in North Park at least until next summer.
“No one ever said they might be taking this away in a month or two,” said the businessman.
That is until he and several other North Park restaurant owners were told they would need to remove their parklets to make way for the city of San Diego’s construction of the University Avenue Mobility Project, which installs bike and bus lanes and a median, while removing parking spots and the parklets.
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Billings said he and the other business owners were caught off guard. He called the parklets a lifeline during the pandemic, and some of the neighboring restaurants along University Avenue only recently got theirs up and running.
“It’s devastating to think that we might have to live without them,” said Billings. “Not only is this a hit for me, it’s a hit for customers.”
“Nobody would have put up a structure knowing that they were going to have to take it down in one, two, even probably six months,” said Angela Landsberg, the executive director of North Park Main Street, which represents more than 700 businesses. Some of those businesses invested thousands of dollars in parklets only a few weeks ago.
“I think we definitely would have still invested money, just not as much money,” said Billings.
Landsberg said a city contractor notified several Main Street members their parklets would need to come down to make room for construction.
“I think that somebody dropped the ball and did not reach out to the businesses to let them know that they were going to have to take their parklets down in a short period of time,” she said.
NBC 7 contacted the city and City Council President Pro Tem Stephen Whitburn, who represents North Park.
A city spokesperson issued this statement: “The University Avenue Mobility Project is installing various multi-modal enhancements along University Avenue to improve safety and mobility. The City of San Diego is working individually with businesses that have permitted Temporary Outdoor Business Operations to relocate and move operations located where work will take place with as much anticipation as feasibly possible, exceeding the minimum 10-day notice that must be provided. Additionally, some outdoor operations will not be replaced on University Avenue after the new infrastructure is installed. In these cases, the City will assist businesses to explore alternative solutions to relocate operations.”
Landsberg said the city should have done a better job setting a construction schedule and communicating that schedule to businesses and the department issuing permits for the parklets. She said the city should not have approved permits knowing construction would negate the work.
“We just need better coordination,” she said. “It takes time. It’s not something that can be done in 10 days.”
Councilman Whitburn also issued a statement:
“I share in the frustration of our small businesses. Our office has and will continue to advocate for robust engagement regarding city projects within our district. We will continue to work with our small businesses and city staff to come up with solutions. It is important to remember that these are more than just local businesses, they are people’s livelihoods, and they deserve to be engaged and informed about actions that affect them.”
“It’s completely unfair,” said Billings, who argued losing his parklet will put his brewery at a competitive disadvantage to a competitor with an outdoor seating area.
He simply wished he had more time and more warning. “Let us replenish our bank accounts. Let us get our feet back on the ground,” he said.
On Tuesday the City Council approved the Spaces as Places program, which will permanently allow outdoor dining in spaces previously allowed to expand only temporarily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.