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.