Palo Alto looks to modify popular parklet program | March 10, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 10, 2023

Palo Alto looks to modify popular parklet program

City Council prepares to set size limits, charge fees for downtown dining areas

by Gennady Sheyner

When parklets first popped up on Palo Alto's commercial streets in the early days of the pandemic, there were few rules or expectations.

They came in various shapes and sizes, ranging from small dining areas with one or two tables to large patio-like enclosures that extend well beyond the length of the restaurant that constructed it. They also became, according to numerous city surveys, extremely popular with the public, a key factor in the City Council's decision last year to make them a permanent fixture of the local streetscape.

But while a smash with residents and visitors, good parklets haven't always made good neighbors. Last October, council members found themselves in the uncomfortable role of mediators in a conflict between restaurants with large parklets and neighboring businesses that don't appreciate the parklets' shrouding effects. Council members agreed at that time that any restaurant with a parklet that extends more than 50% in front of another store's frontage will henceforth require a letter of consent from its neighbor. Absent such a letter, the restaurant has to apply for a new permit to rebuild the parklet under the new rules.

That conversation will continue on Monday, when council members will consider adopting a slew of new rules governing parklet designs and operations. These include a new proposal by planning staff to limit the size of a parklet to two parallel parking spaces (or three angled spaces) and new regulations for propane heaters.

They will also consider charging restaurants annual fees for using the public right-of-way as dining areas. These include the initial application fee of $2,000 to $2,100 and an annual renewal fee of $750 to $1,000, according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Development Services.

In pursuing the size restriction, Palo Alto is following the lead of other area cities that already limit parklets to two parking spaces or require them to be no wider than store frontage. San Mateo has both size restrictions in place, as does Menlo Park (though it allows applicants to request exceptions). San Francisco limits parklets to two parking spaces, while Redwood City limits them to the width of the store's frontage.

Under the staff proposal, Palo Alto would take the San Francisco approach. Restaurants would continue to have the ability to extend beyond their frontage, though they would need their neighbors' permission.

To date, restaurants have had mixed results in getting the neighbors' blessings. According to the report, the city currently has 35 parklets in the downtown and California Avenue business districts. Of those, 15 were large enough to require letters of consent from neighbors. Eight had obtained them, while four could not get permission and will now have to reconstruct their parklets. (Of the remaining three restaurants, one had not yet started construction, another opted not to go ahead and a third has closed down.)

The October action left some business owners on both sides of the parklet issue unsatisfied. Restaurant owners like Nancy Coupal criticized the consent requirement, which will require her to downsize the Coupa Café parklet on Ramona Street because her neighbor, Elizabeth Wong, opposes the addition. Wong, a downtown developer and property owner, also took exception to the city allowing restaurants to infringe on neighboring properties, provided the intrusion is less than half a parking space.

"Please eliminate encroachments without neighboring approval and also what could become a potentially litigious situation," Wong wrote to the council on Feb. 23.

Howard Crittenden, who owns the Emerson Street property that houses Edna Bowls, similarly complained to the council last month about an encroaching parklet from the neighboring restaurant, Rangoon Ruby. The parklet, he wrote, is "covering the visual presence of Edna Bowls."

"My tenant is struggling to stay in business. I feel the parklet is a major part of this reason," Crittenden wrote to the council last month.

City officials hope the new size limit will curtail some of these conflicts. The revised footprint for parklets, the report states, "balances the needs of restaurateurs and businesses with safety requirements, while honoring the overall program intent to enliven the public realm and enhance the experience of diners, pedestrians, and vehicles."

The new regulations also reflect the city's shifting philosophy around parklets. Initially, the goal was to set up the program quickly so that residents would have a place to gather during the pandemic. There were few design standards and little talk about charging businesses for using parking land.

Now that parklets are a permanent fixture, the city is preparing to assert its rights as a landlord and a regulator. Council members broadly agreed during their October discussion that charging restaurants for parklets is reasonable.

Another council goal is predictability. For the city, that means having consistent design standards for parklets at the two downtown districts. For restaurants, it means assurance that they would be able to retain a structure that they had invested thousands of dollars to construct. For retailers, it means having some power to ensure that their frontage won't be completely blocked by the eatery next door.

The new rules that the council plans to consider Monday specify that the structures cannot go up in loading zones, bus zones or no-parking zones and that they must be located directly in front of the operator's storefront. They establish the commercial districts around University and California avenues as the only areas where parklets are allowed and include design standards such as a setback of at least 2 feet between the parklet and the nearest driveway.

And in a reverse from its prior direction, the city no longer plans to ban propane heaters, a rule that faced pushback from some in the restaurant community. The new regulations allow restaurants to store and operate propane heaters but require them to obtain a hazmat permit from the Fire Department, which requires an annual fee of between $500 and $3,000.

The parklet discussion is part of a broader effort by Palo Alto to enhance its downtown areas and turn them into promenades akin to State Street in Santa Barbara and Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado. City planners are currently in the early phases of putting together new plans for Palo Alto's two car-free streets: California Avenue and a segment of Ramona Street just north of Hamilton Avenue in downtown. A community meeting to discuss this planning process is scheduled for March 30.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Mar 8, 2023 at 12:01 pm

Rose is a registered user.

There shouldn’t be any dining parklets on California Avenue! Cal Ave is a major East/West throughway for pedestrians and bicycles traveling to and from the Caltrain station, the Stanford Industrial Park and the campus. While the City keeps trying to get residents and commuters out of their cars and onto their feet and bikes, practically shutting down Cal Ave for dining is a huge mistake (no matter how popular it might be with diners). The egress and ingress to Cal Ave for autos was challenging before the street was closed. Now it’s a disaster. As Greer Stone said: "We need to make decisions based on what's going to provide the greatest utility for the public and not be as concerned about the wants of an individual business." This applies to Cal Ave too, in terms of the movement of traffic, pedestrians and bikes. Thank you, Greer.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2023 at 12:18 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

"This is public property," PERIOD.

Not only is it public property, but the way the city is permitting illegal use of it violates ADA laws. I'm in a mood to file a petition against the city for denying access to disabled people. Everybody says, "go around" or "park in back" or otherwise accommodate the venue. That's not how it works. The venue provides the accommodation for disabled people. Not the other way around.

Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 8, 2023 at 3:47 pm

Sunshine is a registered user.

Please, there are too many large parakeets on California Ave, especially on Sunday when the Farmer's Market is also there. The parakeets take up too much space and block our the market stalls. The street should be available for the Farmer's Market on Sundays. The new parakeets make it impossible to shop on California Ave. It is also difficult to access regular businesses that still remain in California Ave.

Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2023 at 4:52 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

Thanks for the hearty laughs, Sunshine. I'm picturing a flock of large parakeets flying through Cal Avenue, nipping at shoppers. They certainly aren't quite as frightening as crows or ravens, but if there are enough parakeets, I suppose it would be frightening, a la Hitchcock's "The Birds".

Posted by TR
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 8, 2023 at 7:22 pm

TR is a registered user.

On CA Ave, we should consider simply closing it to vehicle traffic. Stop letting parklets (and stalls) block the whole roadway and make a safe walking and bike path through CA Ave. Leave the cross streets open for easy access. Parking remains behind. Tada! We have a walkable shopping district

Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2023 at 7:22 pm

eileen is a registered user.

I did not read anything about some sort of design standards. Will the white tent-like structures remain?

Posted by wise
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 8, 2023 at 8:04 pm

wise is a registered user.

What is the rule on blocking sidewalks like Tamarine does on University Avenue?- They are putting a rope across the sidewalk forcing people to walk in the street.

Posted by Sorry to hear this
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 9, 2023 at 8:45 am

Sorry to hear this is a registered user.

while the dining experience may be better on Cal Ave than before, the street with all its variety of tables is a mishmash and an eyesore. The street is more than wide enough to have a few parklets on one side and driving on the other. I used to drive down Cal Avenue at least once a week and pop into stores. Since the pandemic has hit, I never do. Do you miss me Leaf and Petal and Bob, at Palo Alto Eyeworks? I don't even go to the restaurants as much as I used to. I find having the whole street blocked off a mental barrier to entry. It's not a good consumer experience for me.

Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 9, 2023 at 3:09 pm

eileen is a registered user.

Personally, I would like to hear about the parklet DESIGN standards.
The whole street looks horrible with a circus/fair tent look. Can't we come up with a beautifying standard that includes plants, trees, and a few benches for people to sit on? Not everyone wants to eat at a restaurant! What has the city proposed?

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2023 at 12:04 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

I reside across the street from “Cal Ave”. I’ve invested in the street for 7 years. I’ve seen 15 business’ leave.

Now. Pandemic restitution. The so called “park lets” are troublesome. Compared to RWC Menlo Los Altos or MV l, Cal Ave is an ugly step son, twice removed. What the hey!

University Ave ? Hello! Jing Jings on Emerson? The Chamber or Biz Assoc is doing little to incentivize, supplement, support or accommodate these small business’. Palo Alto cares not about it’s small struggling, business aesthetic or it’s inclusion of small town merchants and resident consumers. Cal Ave is a particular mess.

After the loud, gruesome grinding away at it’s street in 2015, removing public art, and refusing to remove any 23 in number of the empty dilapidated, unused last Century paper
racks (sidewalk obstacles), the so called “park-lets” are as transitory as our massive, unhoused population. These small business’ are handed a temporary green light until the real estate is needed for other financial means.

And. yes. I’ll take my $$ and
go to More welcoming and accommodating zips: San Mateo, RWC, Menlo, Los Alto or MV to dine. The aesthetic, ambiance, inclusion and joy of supporting a city’s economy so much more inclusive. The soul of literally dining out in PA has been sucked out of local support.

I suppose the chamber is counting on the adjunct / hybrid employee of SU or Stanford Research Park or other to fill in the gaps.

As a resident, my family does not have a relaxed dining out experience in Palo Alto. Whether w my kids r not, there is no local, local cal here. It’s a do or die dining situation. The out of town restaurant servers are only here for the tip money (I totally understand) while further abusing their physical bodies on concrete surface and walking further to serve a table.

Who ever said Palo Alto was known for its customer service, good food or yes, a small business to support? Out door dining here is a contentions experience.

Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 10, 2023 at 10:25 am

Sunshine is a registered user.

I note several comments about getting out of your car and walking more. What happens to people who are disabled either by injury or age? What the parakeets do is eliminate the possibility of older and disabled people dining there. Too bad. Many of us still have money to spend. Guess we will go elsewhere.

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