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Taking It To The Streets: Parking Loss Limited As Cities Move To Adopt Permanent Outdoor Dining

When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered restaurants, clubs and bars, Tricia La Belle's businesses, like so many others, were thrown into flux. The owner of Boardners bar in Hollywood, Dave’s On Broadway in Glendale, and Bon Vivant Market & Cafe in Atwater Village said that when the city of Los Angeles gave the green light for restaurants to add outdoor seating in the street, often in public parking spaces, she received approval to take over five parking spaces in front of Bon Vivant.  

Outdoor dining in Los Angeles

The feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive since she opened in June, La Belle said. Street parking on the independent business-filled stretch of Glendale Boulevard where her business is located is tight, but there has so far only been one instance of anyone voicing a complaint about the lost parking to her, and it came from a neighboring business owner once restaurants were allowed to increase indoor capacity to 25% in March.

"The other business was a takeout restaurant that had a record year," said La Belle, whose restaurant still isn't at full indoor capacity. 

As the pandemic pushed restaurants through an obstacle course of closures, reopenings and occupancy restrictions, cities across the country rushed to offer a life preserver to the industry in the form of emergency outdoor dining programs. These programs allowed restaurants to quickly and easily set up tables on sidewalks, in private parking lots and, in some cases, in street parking spaces, and restaurant professionals say they have been vital to their ongoing recovery.

Los Angeles is moving to create a permanent version of the outdoor dining program, with the Los Angeles City Council waiting on reports from four city offices and departments with details on the mechanics of making elements of LA Al Fresco permanent. As they do, and as New York has already made outdoor dining and its Open Streets program permanent, clashes over the use of public parking spaces remain few. 

The sidewalk and private parking area options make up the majority of the outdoor dining program uses, LA Department of Transportation spokesperson Colin Sweeney told Bisnow in an email, adding that the loss of parking hasn’t been a source of complaints. LADOT oversees the program.

To date, the LA Al Fresco program has approved 1,775 dining areas on private property like rear parking lots and 1,528 sidewalk dining zones, while 155 in-street locations have been approved and installed.

The city doesn’t track or have an estimate for how many parking spaces that might represent, in part because not all on-street dining takes up a parking spot, Sweeney wrote. But even if every one of those took up five spots, it would represent 775 spaces in a city with almost 6 million

Independent Hospitality Coalition Vice President Eddie Navarrette, who also works as a consultant to restaurant clients, said that there are opportunities for neighbors to provide input on outdoor dining additions. In working with a restaurant that wanted to add outdoor seating in the trendy area around Fairfax and Melrose avenues, Navarrette said the process required him to get the OK from retailers on both sides of the street and gather signatures from them. 

“They are given a good amount of opportunity to provide input on whether they want outdoor dining [near them]," Navarette said.

Other cities across the country put together outdoor dining programs to help restaurants stay afloat during the last year. In New York, a similar program for outdoor dining allowed for restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks and in parking spots in the street.

About 5,700 of the 11,500 New York restaurants participating in the program set up in the street. A press representative for Mayor Bill de Blasio estimated that translated to about 8,500 parking spots of the city’s 3 million spaces taken up by outdoor dining, the New York Post reported.

"We made the right call during the height of the COVID crisis to save our restaurants, and in the process, reimagined the streets of our city. Open Restaurants are here to stay!" de Blasio tweeted in response to the Post's story.

Outdoor dining in New York City

"There’s always going to be some people that are unhappy with the loss of parking spots, but we need to put it in perspective,” New York City Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie said.

There have been more documented complaints about parking loss in New York than in Los Angeles, with the Post reporting that New York streets had become “parking hell.” But Mermaid Inn co-owner Daniel Abrams said that while he has heard some general griping about parking, people have, for the most part, seen past the inconvenience. 

Abrams has four Mermaid Inn locations, but only one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has reopened since closures last year. That location has on-street dining in about six parking spots, allowing for 50 tables, plus 40 on the sidewalk. Restaurants next to his take up about four additional spaces, Abrams said, meaning most of the parking on the block is gone. 

“I think everybody understands the position the restaurants are in,” Abrams said. “Restaurants are cultural institutions for the neighborhood. There’s nobody saying, ‘Hey, I want to put my car here and put you out of business.'” 

Hospitality experts in New York and LA said that running a profitable restaurant in either city was already a challenge prior to the pandemic, and bustling outdoor tables don't erase a long road to recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

Restaurants in central business districts are feeling the effects of workers still not returning to the office, and in some areas, not enough employees returning to staff fully reopened restaurants. Coupled with diminished tourism, many restaurants in New York and LA are still facing months of back rent and other expenses that have piled up as a result of various restrictions on operations due to the health crisis. 

“Just because you walk by and see people are out eating and drinking at restaurants and bars does not mean that the industry is fine,” Rigie said.

La Belle estimates she owes tens of thousands of dollars to her landlords. Like many others across the county, she applied for money from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund but has yet to find out whether she will receive anything. The Small Business Administration, which controls the fund, said last week that it received more than 372,000 applications with requests totaling $76B, far exceeding the $28.6B the fund has, The New York Times reported

Still, La Belle invested $14K in her outdoor dining setup and, if she receives federal grant funds, said she would put more into the outdoor area. 

“It's the first place people want to sit when they come here to dine,” La Belle said. “‘Would you like to sit inside or out?’ ‘Outside.’  Always.”