With limited restaurant service, restaurants are reclaiming parking spaces for alfresco dining

The city of Santa Monica relies heavily on tourism, restaurants and retail. All of these businesses collapsed during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Restaurant owners on Main Street, between Pico Boulevard and Pier Avenue in the Ocean Park neighborhood, were desperate.

The city therefore mobilized and intervened. They removed the parking lanes on both sides of Main Street and made them available to restaurants for social distancing alfresco dining. They installed heavy K-rails as a protective barrier against cars. Restaurants added decor and diners came back to streaming.

“It had a transformative effect,” says Anuj Gupta, Deputy City Manager for the City of Santa Monica. “It boosted the morale of the community. “

Efforts to open the streets for restaurants and other services are encouraged in other shopping districts in Santa Monica. They are also being tested across Southland. For example, the Glendale Galleria shopping center installed tables and chairs inside a parking structure.

These street interventions not only boosted business at a very difficult time, but they challenged the status quo in Los Angeles County. Automobiles and their parking needs dominate urban planning in our region. Some 200 square miles of space in Greater LA is devoted to parking, according to mobility expert Jean Rossant.

One of the leaders of the Main Street Al Fresco restoration program, Hunter Hall, had previously attempted to shake up the parking area. He helped create three permanent parklets on Main Street. Parklets are public rest areas usually built in one or two parking spaces. These parklets were tested by the city and analyzed in a UCLA study.

“But now that we have this program, we’ve kind of blown that out of the water,” says Hall, who heads the Main Street Business Improvement Association and has worked closely with the Ocean Park Association, a group of residents, on the Main Street renovation. “We went through steps two through eight, and we showed very quickly that this is a very successful program, and we hope to keep it on a permanent basis.

Al Fresco’s current revenue is around 30% to 40% of pre-covid revenue in most places, Hall explains. Those with a large enough outdoor space get a bump of over 60% or 70%.

Gupta says they hope to keep the outdoor dining in the future. He adds that the city itself has learned lessons from this experience. In the face of a crisis, staff members kicked off the cogs of the bureaucracy much faster than usual, bringing stakeholders together to create a two-week plan. They redesigned the road and installed the K-rails within days and committed to responding to permit applications within 48 hours. All of this was accomplished by lighter municipal staff. The massive fall in sales tax revenues caused the Fire one third of municipal staff.

“We absolutely intend to learn from it and, even beyond the crisis, to continue to use these new ways of doing business, new ways of identifying efficiencies and supporting our businesses more flexibly and quickly, ”Gupta said.

In the meantime, it’s up to restaurateurs to make their parking lots attractive, which involves figuring out how to conceal or raise the K-rails, concrete barriers that weigh around 4,000 pounds.

The popular Dolcenero gelateria is located in a mini-mall on Main Street. Customers now occupy the parking spaces. Photo credit: Sean Paul Franjet @SPFstudios, courtesy of Main Street Santa Monica

Walk up and down Main Street and you’ll see a variety of approaches: a false hedge and potted plants at Chinois on Main, Astroturf climbing the K-rails at Tsukiji Sushi Sen and, at the upscale French restaurant Pasjoli, a blue rugs on the floor and chic square umbrellas.

Ann Hsing, COO at Pasjoli, says “that was the intention: to provide these big, spectacular umbrellas to hopefully catch your attention across the street and also set us apart.”

She points out that there were practical challenges in moving the seats on the road. With the sidewalk sloping for drainage, their solution was to have one row of tables on the flattest part of the street and another row of tables on the sidewalk. This has been just one of many thorny issues in a very volatile time for the restaurant industry.

But, she says, “In March, the whole town was really empty, and it was almost depressing and worrying. So now we have all these tables outside and it brings the community more together, at a social distance of course. In that regard, I think it’s amazing.

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