When parklets first appeared along commercial thoroughfares in Palo Alto two years ago, city leaders saw them as a way to help restaurants during the pandemic while providing downtown visitors with a dining experience. safe.
Since then, however, the eclectic, spontaneously assembled, and generally beloved dining halls have become permanent fixtures along University and California Avenues and other commercial blocks. The city council no longer debates their maintenance, having voted several times to extend the pilot program set up in the spring of 2020.
The current program is due to expire on June 30, after which the city hopes to replace it with a permanent program that would replace the haphazard patchwork that exists today with something more orderly, aesthetically pleasing and potentially profitable.
The effort will begin in the coming days, with the architectural review board reviewing the design rules for the new parking scheme on Thursday morning and council reviewing the changes on May 9. Both organizations will evaluate proposals to improve a program that has been well received. by both merchants and residents. Even though downtown businesses clashed last year over whether to keep University Avenue closed to vehicular traffic, just about everyone supported keeping the parklets in place for the long term.
Steve Sincheck, owner of downtown restaurants Local Union 271 and The Old Pro, was one of many restaurant owners who testified last year to the benefits of the nascent parklet program. Most people, he said, want street closures and parklet programs to stay in place for as long as possible.
“People want to be outdoors, they love to eat out and overall it’s safe,” Sincheck said shortly before the council voted to extend the parklet pilot.
Although council has since voted to reopen University Avenue to traffic, the new planning staff report acknowledges the enduring popularity of the parklet program.
“The parklets, along with the closed streets, have been appreciated by many Palo Alto residents — the Council has received thousands of emails of support over the past two years,” says a new report from the Department of Planning and Services. of development. “In addition, restaurateurs have noted the positive impact of parklets, particularly when customers are hesitant to dine indoors.”
So what will Palo Alto’s permanent parklet program look like? A new proposal, which the council will discuss on May 9, offers some avenues. According to the rules just published by the department, the currently fragile structures will have to be redesigned and fortified. All parklets with platforms should be anchored to the street or sidewalk. Canvas roofs should give way to permanent roofs fitted with horizontal and vertical bracing and gutters.
Every parklet should now be surrounded by “high-quality, durable, non-reflective materials” such as hardwood, steel or concrete (aluminum and vinyl are banned) that creates a clear barrier from the street. Parklets should also have a platform that creates a seamless transition from the sidewalk and should be in a neutral tone such as stained wood, beige or black.
In addition to these design rules, restaurateurs will face new restrictions. The use of propane for heating will now be prohibited, but electric heaters will be allowed. Restaurants will also not be allowed to place generators in their parklets or store power cords or conduit under the sidewalk.
The ministry’s new report acknowledges that the cost of upgrading parklets could be significant for some businesses. But planning staff say requiring the upgrade is ‘imperative to ensure that outstanding violations are resolved and that all parklets benefit from improved safety and aesthetic standards’. They also recommend a transition period to allow existing licensees to obtain approval.
Lara Ekwall, co-owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban restaurant on California Avenue, suggested that switching from gas to electric heaters could be particularly expensive. In an April 21 letter to business owners, Ekwall highlighted some of the city’s parks ordinance proposals and noted that new heating requirements will require many buildings to upgrade their electrical panels. , which “will not be quick or inexpensive”. She said she hopes the city will consider a safe way for restaurants to use the gas heaters they have already invested in.
“It looks like parklets will easily cost tens of thousands of dollars to be secure and compliant,” Ekwall wrote.
In addition to redevelopment costs, restaurants may also now be subject to permit fees. While staff didn’t recommend a set amount, the new report includes a survey of other cities in areas that have recently adopted parklet programs and are charging restaurants to set up private dining areas in spaces. public. Pleasanton, for example, charges an annual fee of $1,000, while Burlingame charges $1,500. In Mountain View, businesses with parklets pay $1,200 plus $6 per square foot.
Palo Alto parklets can end up being considerably more expensive. One methodology suggested by staff would be to charge businesses based on the market price of a parking space. If the council adopts this program, a parklet that takes up space would cost the restaurant $9,125 per year. Larger parklets that take up two and three spaces would cost $18,250 and $27,375, respectively.
Other methodologies proposed by staff would charge significantly less, in one case as little as $210 per month for a downtown parklet that takes up two spaces. The new report suggests pricing should strike a balance between generating the revenue the city needs to support the program and ensuring the program would be affordable enough for businesses to participate in.
“If the price is too low, the City may not be able to sustain the program successfully. If the price is too high, too few restaurants may participate to have a program,” the report states.
The council, for its part, has been increasingly optimistic about capitalizing on new dining venues and making permanent changes to Downtown and California Avenue. In late February, council members instructed staff to undertake a planning effort to transform California Avenue and part of Ramona Street north of Hamilton Avenue, both of which remained closed to vehicular traffic. Council members also agreed to keep both streets closed until at least December 2023 and said they wanted to give business owners enough time to recoup their investment in their new outdoor spaces and carry out other improvements to make the streets more dynamic and attractive.
Mayor Pat Burt argued at the Feb. 28 meeting that the streets are overdue for a makeover and the city should make changes before it even completes its long-term vision plan for meals. outdoors in sections of downtown and California Avenue. Palo Alto’s existing streetscape, he said, is “sloppy compared to surrounding communities.”
Council member Alison Cormack agrees and said the streetscape efforts are an “opportunity to be had”.
“We’re not going to seize opportunities if we take half measures,” she said.