Parklets and car-free boulevards will remain a fixture of Palo Alto dining for the foreseeable future, though many of these areas will see a significant transformation in coming months under proposals that the City Council is discussing this month.
The California Avenue business district, where cars have been banned since summer 2020, could see a new two-way bike lane as part of a redesign that the council will discuss next week. Restaurants on the strip would also be required to put up barriers that separate their dining spaces from the road and, in some cases, exchange their carnival-like tents for structures with a more permanent look and feel.
Similar rules will apply to the dozens of parklets that have popped up in commercial strips over the course of the pandemic, with the council voting on Monday to update its guidelines for these structures. The new guidelines, which the council unanimously adopted, prohibit the use of tents, canopies or vinyl enclosures for any new parklet. They also prohibit parklets from blocking handicapped or curb ramps and require a barrier with a height of at least 36 inches between the dining area and the street around it.
The city also is considering additional measures such as banning gas heaters in outdoor areas, though the council opted on Monday not to implement this restriction just yet. Instead, it directed staff to do further research about electric heating options before establishing the rules in the city's permanent ordinance.
In adopting the new rules, the council broadly agreed that the city's experiment with outdoor dining has been a success story. With the city's ordinance allowing parklets set to expire at the end of June, everyone favored extending it until the end of the year and crafting a permanent set of guidelines to govern the program's future.
Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner, who is leading the effort to craft a permanent ordinance, said parklets had become a "lifeline" during the pandemic both for restaurants that faced restrictions on indoor dining and for visitors looking for safer places to congregate. They also had become popular around the community, with city polls consistently showing broad levels of support for retaining outdoor dining.
Council member Eric Filseth called outdoor dining "a hit in Palo Alto."
"We're starting to plan for what permanent might look like as we shift here, because outdoor dining looks like something the community likes," Filseth said.
Yet the city also faces a few unresolved issues. One involves conflicts between a restaurant and a neighboring property owner who opposes having their building blocked by the restaurant's parklet. After taking a lenient approach toward restaurant owners in the early days of the pandemic, city staff later revised the ordinance to require consent from property owners next door. On Monday, the council considered whether that remains the best approach, given the high cost of constructing and removing parklets. Council members ultimately decided that property owners should not have the power to determine how public space in front of their properties will be used.
Gas heaters pose another dilemma. Tanner noted that under existing Santa Clara County fire guidelines, propane needs to be stored outside and be at least 5 feet from a building with multiple exits or 10 feet from a building with one exit. Many restaurants, she said, cannot meet that standard.
"We have yet to see a lot of compliance with our letters and requests to come into compliance," Tanner said. "That's why staff have taken a 'no propane heater' stance."
While some downtown restaurants, including Oren's Hummus and Local Union 271, already use electric heaters according to staff, others have complained that switching from propane to electric heaters would be an expensive and technically complex endeavor, particularly if it requires restaurants to install new electric panels.
Michael Ekwall, co-owner of the California Avenue restaurant Le Bodeguita del Medio, argued in a May 9 letter to the council that banning propane is "not realistic."
"This is really the only source of heat for many of us," Ekwall wrote. "Providing electric heat is a huge challenge as most older buildings on Cal. Ave. and the downtown commercial district cannot support the electrical requirements for radiant heaters."
One of the restaurant's neighbors, he wrote, is currently installing an electric panel to replace one that was damaged and to upgrade service from 200 to 400 amps. The process, he said, has taken more than six months and will cost more than $50,000.
While the council recognized this challenge when it directed staff not to implement the requirement at this time, most members suggested that they favor the switch. Mayor Pat Burt pointed to the impact of propane gas on air quality and the health hazards of breathing gas. He also suggested that restaurants could be encouraged to switch to radiant heaters, which require less power than resistance heaters.
The council asked staff to appraise the electric upgrades that restaurants would need to make to install electric heaters and consider a streamlined permit process to facilitate the switch.
Burt also suggested that the city should do more to encourage bicycling to the new dining areas, particularly in light of the fact that parklets take up parking spaces. He urged staff to explore adding bike parking spaces or, at the very least, replacing those that have given way to parklets. He mentioned a bike corral on Ramona Street that was taken down to make way for the new dining areas and has not been replaced.
"We've seen that our downtowns have been really in some way saved through the last two years as a result of increased evening dining, mostly by residents but (also) by people coming from surrounding towns," Burt said. "In terms of locals using it, we're also anecdotally seeing a fairly significant uptick in people going there by bike and therefore not utilizing parking spaces."
Another area that remains unresolved is rental rates. The council agreed Monday that restaurants that use public space for private use should pay rent. But while staff offered a menu of options for possible rates — including basing them on the estimated cost of parking and on rental rates for downtown retail — the council deferred that debate to a future date.
The city's rules will likely undergo further changes in the coming months, before a permanent ordinance is adopted. The Architectural Review Board held its own discussion of parklets last week and issued a set of recommendations, including giving restaurants more flexibility on color schemes (city staff, by contrast, favored requiring "neutral tones") and allowing parklets to have fabric roofs (provided they don't have heaters under these roofs). The board will continue to refine its proposal before the city adopts its permanent ordinance.
Tanner stressed Monday that the city wants to make sure that the new rules give restaurants plenty of time to transition. To assist, planning staff will prepare several pre-approved designs that restaurants can adopt to expedite the switch.
"We want to make sure that those folks can transition from their existing parklet to the new standards," Tanner said. "We would not want to recommend allowing any kind of grandfathering where the existing parklets can just continue in their current state.
"We would want folks to undergo a process of identifying where their parklet does or does not meet the standards so that they can transition to the new standards."