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Council extends outdoor dining and parklet program, directs commission to review spaces used by Las Brisas

By SARA HALL

City Council last week approved extending the outdoor dining and parklet program for another two years.

Councilmembers voted 4-1 (Councilmember Alex Rounaghi dissented) on November 7 to continue the program until Jan. 1, 2026. The program includes businesses utilizing private and public parking spaces for outdoor dining through temporary use permits.

“The program is something we should continue to encourage,” said Mayor Bob Whalen.

As part of last week’s action, council also directed the Planning Commission to review the number of spaces used by Las Brisas restaurant for outdoor dining, which Rounaghi indicated was the reason behind his “no” vote.

Councilmember George Weiss questioned why Las Brisas, which already has their own outdoor dining area, needs to utilize 28 private parking spaces (significantly more than other restaurants participating in the program) to expand it even more.

It is fairly substantial, noted Community Development Director Marc Wiener, and they are looking into it. Staff recognizes that La Brisas is, by far, utilizing the most spaces, he added.

“They really have the lion’s share of the parking spaces under this program, so that is something that we are intending to look at when we take this back to the Planning Commission for the TUP and I do want to see if we can get that footprint reduced a little bit more and get some of those parking spaces open,” Wiener said.

Council could also consider setting a limit on the number of spaces that a site can utilize, he added.

Interim City Manager Sean Joyce recommended that council include the direction for the Planning Commission to look at the spaces being utilized by Las Brisas in the motion of approval, so that it’s written into the record rather than staff inferring that there was a consensus. Weiss clarified his motion for approval accordingly.

Whalen pointed out that since staff indicated they were already preparing to raise the issue with the Planning Commission about whether or not they should scale it back, this was just a formal part of the motion from the council to ask the commission to review it.

“They can decide whatever they want, they can decide no change (or) some change,” Whalen said.

Ultimately, a majority of councilmembers agreed.

Council extends outdoor dining parklets

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

City Council approved extending the outdoor dining parklet program again

Councilmember Mark Orgill also suggested that when they work on the implementation of the Downtown Action Plan that staff look for opportunities where they can widen the sidewalks and accommodate outdoor dining without the parklets. He and other councilmembers agreed that they could improve the visual impact.

Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf noted that widened sidewalks are much more charming anyway. There’s plenty of room to do that in a lot of places, she pointed out.

A few councilmembers also agreed that the city should try to capture as many businesses as possible into the parking master plan.

Overall, he supports outdoor dining, Rounaghi noted, it’s popular and makes a lot of sense for Laguna Beach. It’s one good thing that happened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.

The outdoor dining program was approved in May 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on indoor dining, Wiener explained. The action authorized outdoor dining and outdoor display of merchandise on the adjacent storefront sidewalk through the approval of a temporary use permit. It was later expanded to include the parklet program, he added.

Staff noted in the report that “it’s been successful in helping support businesses,” which have been operating under the city-approved TUPs. Since the program’s inception, staff has approved 30 TUPs for outdoor dining and retail display in the Downtown and other locations.

The program was first extended in August 2020 and again in January 2021. After Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill in October 2021 that allowed jurisdictions with outdoor dining to reduce the number of required parking spaces for existing business uses, the program was extended again in November 2021.

In May, council approved a market rate fee schedule for outdoor dining programs/parklets on public property in Downtown. The rate was set at $5 per square foot, per month, plus a $4,500 maintenance fee.

There are 15 restaurants currently participating in the outdoor dining program. Wiener noted that four restaurants (Hapi Sushi of Laguna, Slice Pizza, Sushi Laguna and The Wharf) have decided not to renew their permits and their parklets have been removed.

Through the issuance of TUPs, a total of 68 parking spaces are devoted to outdoor dining under this program, including 56 spaces in private parking lots and 12 public spaces utilized as parklets.

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Several councilmembers agreed that the market rate approach for the parklets seems to be working as the ones that are under-utilized aren’t renewing their permit, while the restaurants that want to invest in and use their parklet are willing to pay the fee.

Any new businesses interested in participating in the program may apply and applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Tango is the latest restaurant to receive a new parklet.

On October 8, Newsom signed AB 1217, extending the previous state law and allowed cities to waive parking requirements for outdoor dining until Jan. 1, 2026. City staff recommended extending the local program to the same date.

Staff also initially scheduled for an extension of the Promenade on Forest to be considered by the council at last week’s meeting, but after discussing the matter with the city attorney they determined that the correct process was to first go to the Planning Commission (on the agenda for the November 15 meeting).

The city is currently developing design concepts for a permanent pedestrian plaza and anticipates a two- to three-year timeline.

During public comment, opinions on outdoor dining and the parklets were split.

Some speakers said outdoor dining was no longer needed as the COVID-19 pandemic was no longer a concern, while some said the program was so successful and popular it should continue since people like dining outdoors.

A few thought the Downtown traffic and parking problems had increased, although others opined that circulation and traffic flow had improved.

A couple of commenters were concerned about the lost parking revenue, but another noted that the funds were made up in increased sales tax.

Replying to a few of the public comments that asked about TUPs for specific restaurants, Wiener clarified that the council was reviewing the overall program, not issuing or renewing the permits. That will be handled by the Planning Commission at a future meeting (likely in December), he added.

Although he did reply to the concerns raised about trash issues at AhbA. Wiener confirmed that there is an open case with code enforcement. They can put some attention on the issues raised when the TUP goes back to the Planning Commission, he added.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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