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Palo Alto prepares to revamp parklet program

After two years of experiments, city looks to set up new design rules and permit fees for popular dining areas

Rooh's parklet on University Avenue in Palo Alto on April 30, 2022. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

When parklets popped up along Palo Alto's commercial thoroughfares two years ago, city leaders viewed them as a way to aid restaurants during the pandemic while providing downtown visitors with a safe dining experience.

Since then, however, the eclectic, spontaneously assembled and generally beloved dining areas have become permanent fixtures along University and California avenues and other commercial blocks. The City Council is no longer debating whether to keep them around, having voted several times now to extend the pilot program that was established in spring of 2020.

The current program is set to expire on June 30, after which time the city is hoping to replace it with a permanent one that would replace the haphazard patchwork that exists today into something more orderly, aesthetically pleasing and potentially profitable.

The effort will kick off in the coming days, as the Architectural Review Board considers design rules for the new parklet program on Thursday morning and the council considers the changes on May 9. Both bodies will weigh proposals to improve a program that has been well received by business owners and residents alike. Even as downtown businesses clashed last year over whether to keep University Avenue closed to car traffic, just about everyone supported keeping parklets in place for the long haul.

Steve Sincheck, owner of the downtown restaurants Local Union 271 and The Old Pro, was one of many restaurant owners who testified last year about the benefits of the nascent parklet program. Most people, he said, want street closures and parklet programs to remain in place for as long as possible.

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"People want to be outside, they love dining outside and overall it's safe," Sincheck said shortly before the council voted to extend the parklet pilot.

While the council has since voted to reopen University Avenue to traffic, the new report from planning staff acknowledges the lasting popularity of the parklet program.

"Parklets, along with closed streets, have been beloved by many Palo Alto residents — with the Council receiving thousands of emails of support over the last two years," a new report from the Department of Planning and Development Services states. "Further, restaurateurs have noted the positive impact of parklets, particularly when patrons are reluctant to dine indoors."

People walk past Cafe Venetia and its parklet on University Avenue in Palo Alto on April 30, 2022. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

So what will Palo Alto's permanent parklet program look like? A new proposal, which the council will discuss on May 9, offers some ideas. Under the rules just released by the department, structures that are currently flimsy will have to be redesigned and fortified. All parklets with platforms would have to be anchored to the street or the curb. Canvas roofs would have to give way to permanent ones equipped with horizontal and vertical bracing and gutters.

Every parklet would now have to be enclosed with "high-quality, durable and non-reflective material" such as hardwood, steel or concrete (aluminum and vinyl are verboten) that creates a clear barrier from the street. Parklets will also be required to have a platform that creates a seamless transition from the sidewalk and which must be on a neutral tone such as stained wood, beige or black.

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In addition to these design rules, restaurant owners will face new restrictions. The use of propane for heat will now be prohibited, though electric space heaters will be allowed. Restaurants also won't be allowed to place generators in their parklets or store power cords or conduits under sidewalk.

The department's new report acknowledges that the cost of retrofitting parklets could be significant for some businesses. But planning staff argue that requiring the retrofitting is "imperative to ensure that outstanding violations are resolved and that all parklets benefit from the improved safety and aesthetics standards." They are also recommending a transitionary time period to allow existing permit holders to obtain approval.

Lara Ekwall, co-owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban restaurant on California Avenue, suggested that the switch from gas to electric heaters could be particularly expensive. In an April 21 letter to business owners, Ekwall highlighted some of the proposals in the city's parklet ordinance and noted that the new heating requirement will require many buildings to upgrade their electrical panels, which will "not be fast or inexpensive." She said she hopes the city will consider a safe way for restaurants to utilize the gas heaters that they have already invested in.

"It seems like the parklets will easily cost tens of thousands to be safe and compliant," Ekwall wrote.

In addition to the retrofitting costs, restaurants may also now be subject to permit fees. While staff has not recommended a set amount, the new report includes a survey of other cities in the areas that have recently adopted parklet programs and that charge restaurants for installing private dining areas in public spaces. 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's parklets may end up being considerably more expensive. One methodology proposed by staff would charge businesses based on the market price of a parking space. If the council adopts this scheme, a parklet that takes up one space would cost a restaurant $9,125 annually. Larger parklets that take up two and three spaces would cost $18,250 and $27,375, respectively.

Other methodologies proposed by staff would charge considerably less, in one case as little as $210 per month for a downtown parklet that takes up two spaces. The new report suggests that the rates should strike a balance between generating the revenues that the city needs to support the program and ensuring that the program would be affordable enough for businesses to participate.

"If the price is too low, the City may not be able to successfully sustain the program. If the price is too high, too few restaurants may participate to have a program," the report states.

Customers eat a meal in Oren's Hummus' parklet on University Avenue in Palo Alto on April 30, 2022. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

The council, for its part, has been increasingly bullish about capitalizing on the new dining areas and making permanent changes to downtown and California Avenue. In late February, council members directed staff to undertake a planning effort at transforming California Avenue and a portion of Ramona street north of Hamilton Avenue, both of which have remained closed to car traffic. Council members also agreed to keep both streets closed at least until December 2023 and signaled that they want to give business owners ample time to both recoup their investment in their new outdoor areas and make further upgrades to make the streets more vibrant and attractive.

Mayor Pat Burt argued at the Feb. 28 meeting that the streets are overdue for a makeover and that the city should proceed with changes even before it completes its long-term vision plan for outdoor dining in sections of downtown and California Avenue. Palo Alto's existing streetscape, he said, is "sloppy compared to surrounding communities."

Council member Alison Cormack concurred and said the streetscape efforts are an "opportunity to be seized."

"We're not going to be seizing the opportunities if we do half-measures," she said.

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Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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Palo Alto prepares to revamp parklet program

After two years of experiments, city looks to set up new design rules and permit fees for popular dining areas

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, May 4, 2022, 9:43 am

When parklets popped up along Palo Alto's commercial thoroughfares two years ago, city leaders viewed them as a way to aid restaurants during the pandemic while providing downtown visitors with a safe dining experience.

Since then, however, the eclectic, spontaneously assembled and generally beloved dining areas have become permanent fixtures along University and California avenues and other commercial blocks. The City Council is no longer debating whether to keep them around, having voted several times now to extend the pilot program that was established in spring of 2020.

The current program is set to expire on June 30, after which time the city is hoping to replace it with a permanent one that would replace the haphazard patchwork that exists today into something more orderly, aesthetically pleasing and potentially profitable.

The effort will kick off in the coming days, as the Architectural Review Board considers design rules for the new parklet program on Thursday morning and the council considers the changes on May 9. Both bodies will weigh proposals to improve a program that has been well received by business owners and residents alike. Even as downtown businesses clashed last year over whether to keep University Avenue closed to car traffic, just about everyone supported keeping parklets in place for the long haul.

Steve Sincheck, owner of the downtown restaurants Local Union 271 and The Old Pro, was one of many restaurant owners who testified last year about the benefits of the nascent parklet program. Most people, he said, want street closures and parklet programs to remain in place for as long as possible.

"People want to be outside, they love dining outside and overall it's safe," Sincheck said shortly before the council voted to extend the parklet pilot.

While the council has since voted to reopen University Avenue to traffic, the new report from planning staff acknowledges the lasting popularity of the parklet program.

"Parklets, along with closed streets, have been beloved by many Palo Alto residents — with the Council receiving thousands of emails of support over the last two years," a new report from the Department of Planning and Development Services states. "Further, restaurateurs have noted the positive impact of parklets, particularly when patrons are reluctant 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 ideas. Under the rules just released by the department, structures that are currently flimsy will have to be redesigned and fortified. All parklets with platforms would have to be anchored to the street or the curb. Canvas roofs would have to give way to permanent ones equipped with horizontal and vertical bracing and gutters.

Every parklet would now have to be enclosed with "high-quality, durable and non-reflective material" such as hardwood, steel or concrete (aluminum and vinyl are verboten) that creates a clear barrier from the street. Parklets will also be required to have a platform that creates a seamless transition from the sidewalk and which must be on a neutral tone such as stained wood, beige or black.

In addition to these design rules, restaurant owners will face new restrictions. The use of propane for heat will now be prohibited, though electric space heaters will be allowed. Restaurants also won't be allowed to place generators in their parklets or store power cords or conduits under sidewalk.

The department's new report acknowledges that the cost of retrofitting parklets could be significant for some businesses. But planning staff argue that requiring the retrofitting is "imperative to ensure that outstanding violations are resolved and that all parklets benefit from the improved safety and aesthetics standards." They are also recommending a transitionary time period to allow existing permit holders to obtain approval.

Lara Ekwall, co-owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban restaurant on California Avenue, suggested that the switch from gas to electric heaters could be particularly expensive. In an April 21 letter to business owners, Ekwall highlighted some of the proposals in the city's parklet ordinance and noted that the new heating requirement will require many buildings to upgrade their electrical panels, which will "not be fast or inexpensive." She said she hopes the city will consider a safe way for restaurants to utilize the gas heaters that they have already invested in.

"It seems like the parklets will easily cost tens of thousands to be safe and compliant," Ekwall wrote.

In addition to the retrofitting costs, restaurants may also now be subject to permit fees. While staff has not recommended a set amount, the new report includes a survey of other cities in the areas that have recently adopted parklet programs and that charge restaurants for installing private dining areas in public spaces. 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's parklets may end up being considerably more expensive. One methodology proposed by staff would charge businesses based on the market price of a parking space. If the council adopts this scheme, a parklet that takes up one space would cost a restaurant $9,125 annually. Larger parklets that take up two and three spaces would cost $18,250 and $27,375, respectively.

Other methodologies proposed by staff would charge considerably less, in one case as little as $210 per month for a downtown parklet that takes up two spaces. The new report suggests that the rates should strike a balance between generating the revenues that the city needs to support the program and ensuring that the program would be affordable enough for businesses to participate.

"If the price is too low, the City may not be able to successfully sustain the program. 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 bullish about capitalizing on the new dining areas and making permanent changes to downtown and California Avenue. In late February, council members directed staff to undertake a planning effort at transforming California Avenue and a portion of Ramona street north of Hamilton Avenue, both of which have remained closed to car traffic. Council members also agreed to keep both streets closed at least until December 2023 and signaled that they want to give business owners ample time to both recoup their investment in their new outdoor areas and make further upgrades to make the streets more vibrant and attractive.

Mayor Pat Burt argued at the Feb. 28 meeting that the streets are overdue for a makeover and that the city should proceed with changes even before it completes its long-term vision plan for outdoor dining in sections of downtown and California Avenue. Palo Alto's existing streetscape, he said, is "sloppy compared to surrounding communities."

Council member Alison Cormack concurred and said the streetscape efforts are an "opportunity to be seized."

"We're not going to be seizing the opportunities if we do half-measures," she said.

Comments

Evergreen Park Observer
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on May 4, 2022 at 12:11 pm
Evergreen Park Observer, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on May 4, 2022 at 12:11 pm

I see the standards being proposed for 'parklets', but what about the 'temporary' dining structures that are constructed across the entire street along California Ave? There is very little space now for pedestrians to actually walk there. You certainly cannot walk on the sidewalk -- too many waiters darting back and forth to service the outdoor dining areas for safety. Going to the Cal Ave farmers' market on Sunday is now an exercise in dodge ball. For those who want Palo Alto to look like European outside mall in their memories (and remember, they were traveling there -- like many who send in emails to the City Council -- and didn't actually live there), surely they would like to be able to stroll down the street, actually see what other stores are along the street, etc. Pedestrians cannot now walk on the sidewalk -- extreme dodge ball with pedestrians on one side and harried waiters darting back and forth trying to service the outdoor areas. California Ave is a mess, especially compared to downtown Los Altos, Menlo Park, and even downtown Palo Alto. Some kind of clean there cannot happen too soon.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2022 at 12:42 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 4, 2022 at 12:42 pm

Shocked by the proposed charges. The difference between Mountain View and other neighboring cities compared to proposed Palo Alto charge is huge!


Elizabeth
Registered user
Downtown North
on May 4, 2022 at 1:31 pm
Elizabeth, Downtown North
Registered user
on May 4, 2022 at 1:31 pm

The new proposal is horrible. They are going to make people take down the existing after spending several thousand of dollars only to spend more thousands. Now to charge them for their space. They didn't make any money for their spaces. Give restaurants a break!!!!! So unfriendly


Carla
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2022 at 12:11 am
Carla, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 12:11 am

Let's seize this opportunity to make all parklets uniform and attractive. They should be OUTDOOR seating spaces, not INDOOR spaces outdoors. Our downtowns currently resemble shantytowns, with the huts and plastic used by some.

And getting rid of polluting gas heaters is a breath of fresh air.


Keri
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on May 5, 2022 at 4:46 am
Keri, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 4:46 am

The Ramona Street outdoor dining looks great! Cal Ave is a bit of a mishmash now, but that can be easily fixed to become more attractive. Let's help out these retailers and restaurants, maybe a zero interest loan from the city to help them create outdoor dining/retail spaces with less-polluting heating. Let's increase the retailer visibility. Let's get pedestrians back on the sidewalks and put diners in comfortable spaces on the street, and let's put a bike lane/emergency lane in the middle.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 5, 2022 at 10:36 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 10:36 am

Restaurants that have struggled to do business with all the regulations over the past 2 years are now hit again by requiring expensive refurbishments to what they have already invested in to carry on their businesses. What with these regulations and fees, I can't see many restaurants surviving this.


Palo Alto Res
Registered user
Downtown North
on May 8, 2022 at 1:22 pm
Palo Alto Res, Downtown North
Registered user
on May 8, 2022 at 1:22 pm

It's time to get rid of the parklets. There is not enough parking and not enough space on the sidewalks. Get rid of the parklets. If we can afford to not wear masks on planes, it's time to close down parklets and dine indoors. Let California Ave be drivable for cars. For people who can not walk long distances and need car access, this is just simply not convenient for handicapped people. Open up California ave. It's time!


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