News

Council supports new rules for outdoor dining spaces

Palo Alto officials looks to transition parklets from temporary lifelines to permanent fixtures

Diners have lunch in dining areas outside Zareen's and Local Kitchens on California Avenue on Feb. 25, 2022. Photo by Gennady Sheyner

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.

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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.

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"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.

Joanie's Cafe on California Avenue in Palo Alto on Nov. 10, 2020. Photo by Olivia Treynor.

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."

'We're starting to plan for what permanent might look like as we shift here, because outdoor dining looks like something the community likes.'

-Eric Filseth, city council member, Palo Alto

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."

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Gennady Sheyner
 
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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Council supports new rules for outdoor dining spaces

Palo Alto officials looks to transition parklets from temporary lifelines to permanent fixtures

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, May 10, 2022, 9:52 am

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."

Comments

Mark Dinan
Registered user
East Palo Alto
on May 10, 2022 at 10:52 am
Mark Dinan, East Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 10:52 am

Outdoor dining is a no brainer in California. I'm still trying to understand why University was opened back up to traffic, given how much more lively and vibrant it was without cars and car storage.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 10, 2022 at 12:52 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 12:52 pm

This sounds like a very expensive process for most small restaurants. Those that can afford to upgrade will do so, those who can't will suffer and possibly lose customers as a result which may cause their ultimate demise.

The shanty town look all over the Peninsula of dining streets, shows that this is not just a Palo Alto issue. Better design and a uniform look will undoubtedly be more attractive, but causing expensive upgrades is not sustainable for many of our favorites.


Carla
Registered user
Greater Miranda
on May 10, 2022 at 1:37 pm
Carla, Greater Miranda
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 1:37 pm

Operating a parklet outside is the similar in cost (or even less costly) as operating indoors. Why should we not expect restaurants to pay for that option, now that the indoors can be used.

It is not unreasonable to immediately 1) get rid of the dangerous and ugly plastic huts in lieu of large umbrellas 2) get rid of polluting propane heaters in lieu of blankets or nothing at all 3) pay a small fee to use a public space.

As Pat Burt said, our goal should be to dine "al fresco", which to me means not dining in a hut of any sort.


Jonathan Brown
Registered user
Ventura
on May 10, 2022 at 4:25 pm
Jonathan Brown, Ventura
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 4:25 pm

@Carla, "to dine al fresco'" with no heat or shelter means "to freeze 'al fresco'" in many months of the year. That would drive away the intended customers and defeat the purpose of parklets altogether. Perhaps our Silicon Valley ingenuity can investigate a cleaner, greener outdoor heat source, but in the meantime we can indulge this imperfect solution.


tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on May 10, 2022 at 5:54 pm
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 5:54 pm

Those plastic huts are ugly and allowing them on public property is ridiculous. If restaurants want more space they should move to a bigger building. If they want outside space - rent that also. If we rent city space to them, it should be at market rates and no ugly tents should be allowed. When it is cold - eat inside if you want to go out for food. Or do the right thing for the environment and make and eat your food at home.


John Hackmann
Registered user
Professorville
on May 10, 2022 at 8:11 pm
John Hackmann, Professorville
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 8:11 pm

Hard to take City Council majority seriously!!!?. On climate change and global warming and “ electrification” ( which basically is expensively and inefficiently moving fossil fuel consumption from reasonable and efficiently cooking dinner, keeping kids and elders and all warm, and with hot water for bathing, to INEFFICIENTLY moving to distant use of fossil to generate electricity and then loss much of the energy in hundreds or even thousands in some cases of TRANSMISSION LOSS) Since we are “heating the atmosphere” outdoors with unlimited propane! In 100-300 outdoor TOWERS OF FLAMES at fifty locations ....
I support all reasonable climate change policies, heating the atmosphere! and “electrification” are certainly not reasonable, cost effective, or helpful.
And not done with a CEQA review so far as I know.
Perhaps the new Stanford Sustainability School can help us here.


Carla
Registered user
Greater Miranda
on May 10, 2022 at 9:05 pm
Carla, Greater Miranda
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 9:05 pm

@MrBrown:

If you insist on eating outside while it's freezing, there are better solutions that even electric heaters above your head that waste away energy.

In the mountains in Spain (at restaurants), they use tiny heaters under the tables with long tablecloths to prevent the heat from escaping. In addition, you get blankets and everyone wears warm clothes.

We don't need much in terms of innovation to stop the wasteful, polluting, and indulgent imperfect solutions. We just need to copy what others are doing already.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on May 10, 2022 at 9:24 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 9:24 pm

"We have yet to see a lot of compliance with our letters and requests to come into compliance," Tanner said.

This, sadly, is a takeaway message from this story. Palo Alto has earned a reputation for not enforcing its ordinances. As a result, they are not taken seriously.


eileen
Registered user
College Terrace
on May 10, 2022 at 10:21 pm
eileen , College Terrace
Registered user
on May 10, 2022 at 10:21 pm

Carla, having lived in both Spain and Germany, I agree with you!


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 11, 2022 at 11:32 am
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 11, 2022 at 11:32 am

The city doesn't read blogs and posts here. They don't read social media. (Do we want to pay them for the time it takes to read all of this crap? No. We do not.) They read letters you send to THEM. If you have a useful suggestion, send it to THEM. They have the power to make change. They are interested in your ideas.

Cut-and-paste your comments from these posts into an email and send it to [email protected] . Also, copy [email protected]

Thanks for being an active, helpful citizen. Democracy is not a spectator sport.


hkatrs
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 11, 2022 at 8:41 pm
hkatrs, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on May 11, 2022 at 8:41 pm

I hope the City of Palo Alto Council Members, City Manager and the Building Department seizes this opportunity, to work with all the commercial building owners to ‘help’ them resolve electrical upgrades and hvac needs that will plaque them when they will have to close down their outdoor dining in the parklets. Too many structures in most CA cities, including Palo Alto, do not meet code for electrical efficiency, and filtered clean air (ie with hepa-filters, which have been available for implementation in commercial and residential spaces for thirty years). $50,000 to upgrade an electrical panel will become more of an issue and more expensive. How will the City address business needs and building owners costs in order to keep profits rolling in for every bucket that wants a share?


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 12, 2022 at 12:30 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 12, 2022 at 12:30 pm

There's a management problem that needs solving. We knew that before the audit.


MyFeelz
Registered user
Gunn High School
on May 12, 2022 at 1:53 pm
MyFeelz, Gunn High School
Registered user
on May 12, 2022 at 1:53 pm

"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." You can't have it both ways. You can't deny private owners the right to determine how public property should be used. You also can't deny the public the right to demand that public property shouldn't be used AS PRIVATE PROPERTY, in the form of a restaurant that has made the street impassable to cars. My taxes paid for the street. Unless the City is planning on refunding all of the taxes that were paid to develop the street for the public's use, and making the parklet owners pay it retroactively, they will be stepping over a lot of toes. There was an article in this publication about a vexatious litigant who writes too many ADA petitions. But there's a lot of people who live in this city, who used to be able to freely pass on that street in their cars, and park in ADA-marked parking spaces, who have never filed a ADA lawsuit. So ... I've said this before, the City is courting an ADA lawsuit if they continue to violate the Unruh Act. And it will not be thrown out.


Another Bob
Registered user
Community Center
on May 16, 2022 at 12:32 pm
Another Bob, Community Center
Registered user
on May 16, 2022 at 12:32 pm

Eating in a tent is not eating outside.


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