COVID outdoor dining extended, permanent program possible
by Steven Felschundneff | email@example.com
On Tuesday the Claremont City Council was set to decide the fate of Claremont’s COVID-era outdoor dining program, but elected to kick the can down the street pending more information from city staff.
The program, called Claremont Al Fresco, began in June 2020 when the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health restricted indoor dining as a means to slow the spread of SARS CoV-2, during the first few months of the pandemic.
The original program covered just three months, however, it was extended in July 2020, at which time other types of businesses were allowed to operate outdoors as well. In April 2021 the council extended the program once again with an end date of July 4, 2022, after which restaurant owners would have 14 days to remove seating from public areas.
The center of the issue revolves around several “parklets” which allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors in custom seating areas built on top of public parking. Other restaurants were allowed to create or expand outdoor dining onto sidewalks or other public spaces. Still more dining spaces were built on private property, such as the parking lot in front of Sanctuary Coffee on Foothill Boulevard.
Claremont Al Fresco has been popular with both restaurant owners and patrons, but it has come at a cost for other Claremont businesses, which have lost critical parking space, specifically in the ever popular Claremont Village.
Although the program allowed restaurants across town to participate, the bulk of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around four parklets serving Aruffo’s Italian Cuisine, Pizza & Such, House of Pong and Viva Madrid. Those parklets replaced 16 parking spaces on or adjacent to Yale Avenue in the Village, according to Katie Wand, assistant to the city manager.
“As the end of the temporary outdoor dining program approaches, staff requests City Council direction regarding outdoor dining, and more specifically parklets, moving forward. The City Council may end the temporary program on July 4, 2022, as planned, extend the temporary program to a date certain, or provide direction to staff to develop a permanent outdoor dining program focused on parklets. The City already has alternative processes in place to address permanent sidewalk dining, which is why a permanent program would be focused on parklets only,” Assistant City Manager Jamie Earl wrote in the staff report.
Allowing the program to end in July was a non-starter for the council, although figuring out how to proceed proved to be rather tricky. On the face of it, 16 spaces in the Village seemed inconsequential. However, in order to be equitable, any permanent program would have to make the parklets available to all, which could result in significant disruption to parking availability.
That was the concern of Councilmember Corey Calaycay, who expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of adopting a program which represents just a small number of parking spaces now, but could mushroom in the future. He illustrated the possible ramifications of permanent parklets by citing the owners of Candlelight Pavilion, who said their decision to leave Claremont centered around parking issues adjacent to their business.
Through its discussions, the council focused in on “Option C,” finding a solution that will eventually become a permanent outdoor dining policy. Mayor Pro Tem Ed Reece expressed reservations that the council had not been presented with enough information on Tuesday to make a lasting decision. Others expressed concern that going forward with option C might make it look like they were giving preapproval to keeping the parklets, even though any permanent policy would still have to go through the commission process and involve another council vote.
If the parklets do become a permanent part of the Village landscape, they will have to be significantly upgraded to include Americans with Disability Act accessibility requirements, bollards to protect diners from runaway vehicles, as well as a host of improvements to ensure they are safe and healthy. There will also be fees for the private use of public spaces.
During public comment a number of restaurant owners, including but not limited to those who have parklets, spoke of dramatically increased revenue as a result of the Claremont Al Fresco program. Retail store owners, however, complained that while the program may be helping some businesses, it’s hurting others, which seems unfair considering that most coronavirus restrictions have been lifted.
“As a seven-year business owner I hear firsthand complaints daily about how difficult it is to find a parking space in the Village without having to circle multiple times with the hope of finding a place to park. I have been told far too many times that people have given up and now buy online,” said Brian Ofstedahl, owner of Amelie boutique on Yale.
“This isn’t just a restaurant town,” Ofstedahl said. “Indoor dining has been reestablished for a long time. Even mask mandates have been lifted so now it is only fair to all businesses that we return to what is fair for all businesses and not just for a few select restaurants.”
Jason Annigian, who co-owns the Back Abbey and also runs a law practice in town, characterized the parking issues as an unfortunate side effect of living and working in a vibrant city that attracts a lot of visitors.
“We could all be over at the Colonies or some place in some cookie cutter neighborhood where we just pull into a gigantic parking lot. But that is not where we all chose to live, that is not where we chose to put our businesses,” He said. “I do sympathize with the retail people but I don’t think that the few parking spaces that the parklets are taking up is the source of some huge problem. Now with that said, if everyone came in, as I think councilmember [Sal] Medina was saying, and everyone was saying ‘We want a parklet too’ that would be a problem. And that is why option ‘C’ is the only one that make sense because it takes more consideration.”
Several councilmembers expressed interest in a parking study with the goal of adopting a comprehensive parking management plan to help nail down the best long term solution for both the restaurant and retail businesses.
In the end, the council decided to go with a reimagined “Option B,” extending the temporary Claremont Al Fresco program, while instructing staff to begin the parking study in a separate effort.
But before the item could be put to rest, the council had to agree on how much longer the temporary parklets could remain. City Manager Adam Pirrie said it would be difficult to complete the study by December 31, so they initially extended it by one month. However, Councilmember Jennifer Stark remarked that would mean restaurants would be dismantling the parklets just before Valentines Day. Love won out and the new sunset date became February 28, 2023.