More Dining Spots Mean Fewer Parking Spots, And San Diego Seems Fine With That
Last year when COVID-19 forced Tammy Piehl to halt in-person dining at her two North Park restaurants, the outlook for her business was bleak. But she was saved by the city of San Diego’s decision to speed up and expand permitting for outdoor dining.
Piehl owns One Door North and The Smoking Goat, located next door to each other on 30th Street. She swiftly converted four on-street parking spaces and an off-street parking lot with 12 spaces for employees' cars into a patio dining space. Together, the two outdoor dining spaces can accommodate up to 120 additional guests.
"We really wanted to do everything that we could to keep our employees employed," Piehl said. "This allowed us to limp along so that we could continue our business as things began to open up even more."
Piehl is far from the only business owner to benefit. Since the pandemic began, San Diego has approved more than 400 permits for outdoor business operations. Most of them have been set up on space that was previously reserved for parked cars.
Yet, in a city where residents and businesses have fought countless battles to preserve as much parking as possible, there appears to be little evidence of a backlash against the expansion of outdoor dining. When the City Council last week extended the policy to July 2022, no one called in to demand their parking back.
A recent high-profile battle over parking took place right by Piehl's restaurants. In 2019, the city proposed removing street parking on 30th Street to create protected bike lanes. A group called Save 30th Street Parking sued the city to stop the project. A judge later cleared the project for construction while the lawsuit continues, and the city expects to complete the bike lanes by late summer or early fall.
Piehl said before the pandemic her employees would often complain about trouble finding parking. But now, with even fewer parking spaces, everyone seems to have adapted just fine.
"I don't think I've heard about a parking complaint since we've reopened," Piehl said. "They've really found ways to accommodate, and that can include biking to work."
Outdoor dining has also been wildly popular in the Gaslamp Quarter. Since last June, the neighborhood business district has been closing 5th Avenue to cars during afternoons and evenings.
Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, said the new policy has actually solved problems that have long plagued the Gaslamp. The street sees more foot traffic, there's no double parking and the police and fire departments can get to emergencies faster than before, he said.
"The loss of parking really has not been a real issue," Trimble said. "There are close to 3,000 spots within walking distance of the Gaslamp Quarter."
Years ago the Gaslamp Quarter Association began developing plans for a fully pedestrianized 5th Avenue promenade. Initially the city thought it would cost $40 million and take five to eight years to complete, Trimble said. Now the city is pursuing a simpler "phase 1" design that can be implemented much more quickly and cheaply.
"Everyone got the outdoor dining, they got the exposure to eat on the street, we got to close the street and show them that it really does work and the public wants it," Trimble said. "And really it sped up the project by I would say at least five years."
Yet while the city is working to reclaim the Gaslamp Quarter for pedestrians, some fear other neighborhoods will be left behind.
Carlos Stance, owner of Bowlegged BBQ in Mount Hope, has seen business boom since converting his restaurant's back lot into an outdoor dining space. Every day he sees new customers, and all of them want to sit outside, he said.
But Stance said the city could do more to ensure his business district sees the same kind of success with outdoor dining as North Park and the Gaslamp Quarter. His section of Market Street can be a hostile environment for pedestrians, with too many speeding cars and too few trees or crosswalks.
In addition to slowing traffic, Stance said, the city could also do more to help businesses in underserved areas figure out how to make outdoor dining work for them.
"We're paying our sales taxes, we're paying our payroll taxes, we're putting young people to work," Stance said. "It's important for us, for the longevity, to have that kind of support."