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With permits expiring, some San Diego outdoor dining spaces will soon come down

Temporary permits for outdoor dining in San Diego are expiring on Wednesday. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen says many of the structures, called parklets, will soon have to come down.

San Diego businesses with temporary permits to maintain outdoor dining structures may soon be dismantled after the permits expire on Wednesday.

This week the city is transitioning those businesses from temporary permits granted in the early months of the pandemic to new permits under the city's permanent program, called Spaces as Places.

But dozens of businesses are finding that stricter regulations and higher fees make it far less attractive to maintain their outdoor dining structures, also called "parklets." Other businesses are ineligible to renew their permits because their parklets are in the middle of bike lanes.

That's the case for Lara Worm, who owns Bivouac Ciderworks on 30th Street in North Park. Worm said the small dining area she set up in a street parking space was a lifeline during the pandemic lockdowns. Later, as COVID-19 restrictions were eased, the space helped recoup some of her losses.

Worm said she's known for the past year that her parklet would have to come down this week since it interrupts the 30th Street bike lanes, which were designed before the pandemic. She says she does not resent cyclists or the bike lanes.

"The bike lanes have not had a negative impact on my business, and in fact they may have had a positive impact because we've had a lot of support from the biking community," Worm said. "I do see people using the bike lanes, and I do think it's safer than sharing the road with cars."

The conflict between outdoor dining and bike lanes played out differently on Park Boulevard in University Heights, where the city recently installed protected bike lanes. Chris Larson of the city's Development Services Department said engineers designed the bike lanes to go around the street's parklets — though he added those structures may need to change to comply with new regulations.

Larson said so far only 15 businesses in the entire city have completed their applications under Spaces as Places to make their temporary parklets permanent. One reason for the low interest could be higher fees — including an "exclusive use fee" that runs between $20 and $40 per square foot.

"For the most part, businesses didn't pay any money to use the right-of-way during the height of the pandemic," Larson said. "Now that we're transitioning to the permit replacement, there is a need to pay for a plan check of their structure to make sure that they're safe and in the proper locations. There's a need to pay for inspections to make sure that the platforms have been installed per plan."

More businesses may be preparing their new permit applications, or have already submitted their applications and are in a preliminary review phase. It could still be weeks before the city starts enforcement actions against businesses with unpermitted outdoor dining structures.