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By Shawn Raymundo

Continued use of public parking for outdoor dining along Avenida Del Mar will cost local restaurants a monthly fee beginning June 15—the highly-anticipated date when the state’s economy is slated to fully reopen.

A council majority on Tuesday, June 1, approved the plan requiring establishments to pay $200 per parking spot if they’re going to continue operating their temporary outdoor dining areas in the downtown corridor.

The open-air dining concept, which the city has found to be popular among locals and visitors to San Clemente, was part of a business-assistance initiative launched last year amid the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on indoor capacities.

With restaurants allowed to soon have full use of their indoor spaces again, the city looked to give those eateries another five months to utilize public parking if they choose, while also bringing in revenue to offset the cost of launching the summer trolley early this year. 

“The program was initially intended to help these businesses recover loss of capacity, and on June 15, they’ll be able to recover that capacity,” Economic Development Officer Jonathan Lightfoot explained to the council last week. “But we’ve also learned from the past year that the community enjoys this amenity so there’s public benefit in retaining that element.”

(From left) San Clemente residents Dre Delancellotti, 30, Anne Ocampo, 32, and Christian Kekel, 29, enjoy some libations and a cheese plate at The Cellar’s open-air dining area in Downtown San Clemente on July 10, 2020. Photo: Shawn Raymundo

Between mid-June and Nov. 15, restaurants can keep using their makeshift decks and patios so long as they pay for the space used and operate, at a minimum, six days a week for eight hours a day—a requirement that city officials hope will reduce the amount of unused patio areas and free up parking for retail shops.

“Including something of that nature in the license agreement,” Lightfoot said, would “make sure that any businesses that are using the public property are maintaining active operation so we don’t see idle spaces on the street.”

Chris Aitken, chairperson of the San Clemente Downtown Business Association’s Board of Directors, described the outdoor dining program of the last year a “universal success” for both the city and the local restaurants.

“The consistent feedback that we’ve gotten from the sector is one of gratitude to have the temporary structures, to promote businesses as they try to make up losses sustained during the pandemic,” he said.

Asked whether he’s heard from any of the downtown eateries planning to take down their open-air seating by June 15, Aitken said he suspects that the majority will continue operating their patios until Nov. 15.

“From what I know and discussions among the restaurant sector, they believe the fee process is reasonable,” Aitken said. “I suspect that it will be great cooperation from the sector and the city.”

Touching on the six-day/eight-hour requirement, Aitken said the DBA does have concerns as many of the establishments are experiencing staffing shortages—a nationwide dilemma amid recovery from the pandemic.

“It is a local and national issue. I don’t believe all the restaurants that have these structures will be able to meet this new requirement, which could lead to significant capital and operational losses to restaurants if the structures are taken down at this time.”

Aitken said he hopes the city will reconsider the stipulation, as he believes it will “hurt small businesses in the near term.”

Along Del Mar, few restaurants that have set up temporary patios on the street, have also utilized the sidewalk for additional space. Under the new fee program, such establishments opting to continue their outdoor dining on Del Mar will be required to keep all customer seating off the sidewalks.

“When we’re walking past some of these restaurants, it’s hard to walk through,” Mayor Kathy Ward said of those sidewalk seating areas. “I walked on the street because I didn’t want to walk through there.”

The council’s vote last week also eliminated prior approval for the downtown restaurants to set up customer seating in the bulb outs—the areas that feature rest benches and the Landmarks on Del Mar tile art.

City staff is expected to come back to the council at a later date with recommendations addressing the use of private parking lots for outdoor dining, as those concepts have also had an impact on on-street public parking.

According to Lightfoot, most restaurants’ decks use up three parking spaces, which would give the city about $600 a month in General Fund revenue from each establishment. Initially though, Lightfoot recommended imposing the fee based on the number of chairs used, charging $25 to $50 per chair per month.

Using examples, he noted that some restaurants, like Avila’s El Ranchito, have used waiting or red curb areas, not actual parking spots, while others, including the San Clemente Wine Company, have used about four parking spots.

“Ultimately, I feel the most equitable solution was to do it on a per-chair basis,” he said, adding that while Avila’s “space might be larger and they’re using some sidewalk area as well, they, in this case, would only be charged for one parking space.”

Lightfoot also said that basing the fee on square footage would be a balanced approach. However, “the challenge for me would be the need then to go down and measure those spaces more directly, and I just think that would be a little bit more burdensome on staff time to gather that information.”

Mayor Pro Tem Gene James expressed concern with the per-chair route, as enforcement may be more difficult.

“An operator tells us they have four chairs, and you drive by and they have eight or nine chairs, there is where my concern (lies),” James said. “And then restaurants reporting on each other as well. I guess, I don’t want to be burdensome on staff, but I’d feel much more comfortable with either a parking space, or in the absence of a parking space, an equivalent charge for square foot.”

The council, in a 4-1 decision, with Councilmember Laura Ferguson dissenting, voted to approve the program, imposing the $200-per-space fee or a pro-rated amount for restaurants using the red curbs.

“I believe where the city landed as it relates to charging the by parking space is a very good way to do it, it is definable,” said Aitken. “Personally, I believe it’s fair. And also avoids the complication of a per-chair fee.”

The mid-November deadline for restaurants to have their patios fully removed coincides with Daylight Savings Time when the demand for outdoor dining is reduced and parking will be needed for the holiday shopping season, according to the city. The deadline is also meant to clear the street ahead of a planned capital improvement project to repave Del Mar in January 2022.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.

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