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More Dining Spots Mean Fewer Parking Spots, And San Diego Seems Fine With That

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The city has approved hundreds of outdoor dining permits since the pandemic began. Yet despite causing a big loss in parking across the city, the program appears to have widespread support.

Speaker 1: 00:00 It looks like outdoor dining is here to stay in San Diego. What started as a lifeline for restaurants during the pandemic has become a popular feature of city living. And most of that new dining space used to be for parked cars, KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen takes a look at how COVID-19 has forced a conversation about just how important parking really is.

Speaker 2: 00:24 So it was a parking space. Um, prior to the pandemic,

Speaker 3: 00:28 Tammy peel walks me through the patio dining space at her north park restaurant one door north.

Speaker 2: 00:34 Once we closed, excuse me, into our dining. Um, we decided to make this an outdoor space for people to enjoy. And, you know, we could continue to be open

Speaker 3: 00:44 This lot used to provide 12 parking spaces for employees cars. Now it can accommodate up to 80 paying customers peel also put tables and chairs on four street parking spaces. She says without converting parking to dining space, she likely would have gone out of business. We

Speaker 2: 01:00 Really wanted to do everything that we could to keep our employees employed, and this allowed us to limp along so that we could continue our business. You know, as things began to open up even more parking

Speaker 3: 01:15 Is a sensitive subject in north park. In 2019, the city proposed removing street parking to create protected bike lanes, a group called save 30th street. Parking sued the city to stop the project. A judge allowed it to proceed anyway, but the controversy underscores how passionate some San Diegans are about parking before the pandemic PO says, employees would complain about trouble finding a parking spot, but now even with less parking available,

Speaker 2: 01:41 I don't think I've heard about a parking complaint since we've reopened. And everybody has been back to working consistently. They've really found ways to accommodate and that it can be that can include biking to work over

Speaker 3: 01:55 The years. Businesses and residents have fought hard for parking in virtually every San Diego neighborhood. But when the city council voted to extend outdoor dining permits last week, no one called into the meeting to ask for their parking spaces back. There

Speaker 4: 02:09 Is kind of this misconception that parking in front of my store. If I don't have that space, I'm going to be losing business.

Speaker 3: 02:16 Michael Trimble is executive director of the Gaslamp quarter association for the past year. The city has been closing fifth avenue to cars in the afternoons and evenings Trimble says rather than creating problems, the change has solved them. It's more walkable. There's no double parking and the police and fire departments can get to emergencies faster.

Speaker 4: 02:36 The loss of parking really has not been a real issue because there is close to 3000 spots within walking distance of the Gaslamp quarter. The Gaslamp quarter

Speaker 3: 02:45 Association has been planning for a fully pedestrianized fifth avenue prominent for years. Originally city officials thought it would cost $40 million and take up to eight years to get done. But once again, COVID-19 forced them to think differently.

Speaker 4: 03:01 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 that the public wants it. And really it sped up the project, I would say by at least five years, but while the city works

Speaker 3: 03:16 Reclaim the Gaslamp quarter for pedestrians, some fear other neighborhoods will be left behind. We smoke

Speaker 5: 03:21 Everything with our, what our Oak, and this is a brisket that we're cooking.

Speaker 3: 03:25 Carlos stance is the owner of bow legged, barbecue in the Mount hope neighborhood. He also turned his back parking lot into a dining space and it's been a huge success. Yes. And

Speaker 5: 03:34 It's kind of, kind of goes with the barbecue flavor in the backyard and we want it to have an experience. So when you're outside, you hear the good music and have a good atmosphere for eating your food.

Speaker 3: 03:45 Still this part of market street, isn't pedestrian friendly cars go too fast and there aren't enough trees or crosswalks stance came up with his own resources to keep his business afloat during the pandemic. But he loved to see the city invest in Mount hope. Like it has a north park and the gasoline we're

Speaker 5: 04:02 Paying our sales taxes. We're paying, you know, payroll taxes. We're, we're putting young people to work. Uh, so I think it's important for us to, for the longevity to have that kind of support. It would be welcome.

Speaker 3: 04:14 [inaudible] have had their outdoor dining permits extended to July, 2022. In the meantime, the city is working to make the program permanent.

Speaker 1: 04:23 Joining me is KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bo, and Andrew. Welcome. Hi Maureen. Thanks. We've heard so much about the unintended consequences of the pandemic is this re-imagining about parking spaces. One of them,

Speaker 3: 04:38 You know, Carlos stance, the owner of a bow legged, barbecue, who I interviewed told me that before COVID it had never occurred to him to put dining space on this private lot that he had. And I think that's a similar story for many different restaurants. So yes, I think that it is one of those things. One of those many, many things about COVID-19 that has just forced, uh, business owners, residents, cities, to just completely reassess, uh, how we're doing things and what is the best use of our, our built environment and our public right of way. I think a lot of restaurants and businesses have thought if customers don't have that quick and convenient and free or cheap parking that's right by their business, then no one will come, but COVID-19 really forced this little experiment where restaurants felt like they had no choice, but to take away that free or convenient parking and precisely because of that decision, uh, they were able to stay in business and it kept them afloat. So it's really changed the calculus for a lot of people. And I think even after the June 15 three opening, when restaurants will be allowed to have full indoor capacity, many of them plan on keeping these outdoor dining spaces as long as they can, because they've lost a lot of money over the past year. And so, you know, it's a way for them to kind of recoup some of those losses

Speaker 1: 05:55 And how many outdoor dining has the city issued so far

Speaker 3: 05:59 Last week when the city council extended the temporary program, the staffers said that they had approved 415 permits for outdoor business operations. So that could include dining. It could also include retail gyms or hair salons, et cetera. So, uh, and, and that's only for the public street parking. So the city, um, last year also decided that they would not require a permit to put an outdoor dining space on a private parking lot or, uh, for a little sidewalk cafe, as long as some basic rules are followed. And you still have, you know, ADA compliance with, with the width of the sidewalk. Um, they've also granted a number of special events permits. So, uh, the Gaslamp, uh, street promenade on fifth avenue is one example. There's also the one in little Italy and one in the Hoya

Speaker 1: 06:47 Now. And can you tell us more about the effort to make the outdoor dining permanent

Speaker 3: 06:52 It's branded as spaces as places and staff, a city staffers have been working on this for a few months. They expect to present it to the city council in the fall, and they'll, there'll be doing outreach over the summer. It's meant to be a transition from this sort of emergency COVID response to a more permanent program. That's kind of well thought out and, and, you know, you consider all the different, um, obstacles and, and things. So they, they, they plan on going beyond just outdoor dining. Uh, it could include, um, promenades public art, educational exhibits in the public right of way. And the city wants to create a design manual with a menu of options for businesses or other organizations, uh, to choose from. And the city actually attempted something similar to this before COVID-19 it was called the placemaking program. And it was meant to be kind of a quick build, a way to, to repurpose the public right of way. But it just hasn't been very well utilized. And so this new program would, um, hopefully, uh, be better utilized and maybe even go a little bit further.

Speaker 1: 07:53 Now, one of the restaurant owners you spoke with talked about how her employees were finding alternatives to driving, to work and parking their cars where the outdoor dining is now, what alternatives did they find?

Speaker 3: 08:06 She mentioned specifically a biking to work. So, uh, you know, presumably some of our employees are biking. Um, many of them, she said also live close by enough to walk to work. And, uh, there's also a parking garage. That's about a 10 minute walk from her restaurant. So, you know, if, if you, if somebody is really in a pinch or, or they just know that they're not going to be able to find parking close enough to walk, uh, less than 10 minutes, um, they can always go to that parking garage. Um, there's a land use consultant in San Diego has this catchphrase that, um, I always found kind of amusing it's that San Diego doesn't have a parking problem. It has a walking problem. So if you're willing to maybe pay a little bit more for parking, or if you're just willing to walk a little bit, then you can usually find a spot, you know, reasonably, um, close to wherever you're going.

Speaker 1: 08:53 Now. Honestly, not everybody has the physical ability to bike, to places or even walk great distances. Isn't getting rid of access to easy parking, an obstacle for the physically challenged or disabled. Yeah. This

Speaker 3: 09:08 Is an area where I expect there will be. I expect there will be a lot more discussion in San Diego. Um, I do know at least for the 30th street bike lane project that I mentioned in my story, every blue curb parking space, it will be replaced on a side street. So they might remove some parking on the, the 30th street itself, but for every, um, disabled parking space, uh, that, that is removed, it will be placed, uh, nearby

Speaker 1: 09:35 All of us made concessions and changes during the pandemic. Could it be the reason that people did not complain about the disappearing parking spaces during the COVID emergency was because it was during the COVID emergency and people are going to start complaining. Now we're close to having the emergency over. Yes.

Speaker 3: 09:54 I definitely think that there, well, you know, some of the, the lack of opposition to this program has just been, because we've all been kind of busy worrying and fretting about other things, and we have bigger things on our minds than just how easy is it? Is it to find a parking space wherever I'm going? But I do think one thing that has changed is in the past, when we've had discussions about removing parking or whatever, there, there are, uh, there's a contingent that is pretty absolutist about it saying we can't, we can not lose one single space. If anything, we should be adding parking spaces cause it's hard enough already. And I think that is a perspective that has maybe softened a little bit as, as you know, over the past year, because you know, the city in these cases is not removing parking for the sake of making it hard to park they're removing parking and then giving the community something that by all accounts is, is pretty popular.

Speaker 1: 10:50 I've been speaking with KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew bow, and Andrew. Thanks a lot. My pleasure, Maureen.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.