Hamburger Mary's parklet on Pine Avenue. Photo by Jason Ruiz.

Whether you’re Downtown, on Retro Row or in Bixby Knolls, parklets and sidewalk dining areas are becoming more and more ubiquitous in Long Beach and the city is looking at ways to make it easier for businesses to apply for them.

The City Council, in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, instructed the city attorney to prepare an ordinance that could streamline the permitting process for these kinds of installations in the future.

Previously, they required a vote by the City Council to approve the project after the applicant had already undergone the inspection and application process, something that can be costly and time-consuming. With Tuesday’s vote, approval by the council would now only be required of projects that don’t fit into the “traditional” uses such as outdoor dining, art installations, entertainment or for planting and landscaping.

First Fitness Parklet in the United States Opens at Groundwork Fitness in Downtown Long Beach

“What we’re essentially proposing tonight is that if something falls within a permitted use then it would be a streamlined permitting process and that process would be provided at the staff level,” said Public Works Director Craig Beck. “The value of this is that it could happen much quicker and that it would cost the applicants less money.”

Beck said the cost for the permit is tentatively set to be reduced in price by about half, bringing the fee down from $4,800 to about $2,400. The fees are paid annually by the applicant and can fluctuate based on if changes are being made to the area as well as the significance of the changes.

It would also allow up to 10 percent of parking in a business corridor to be replaced with parklets, which could include public park space but in Long Beach has often meant an extension of private businesses into the public right of way. The pre-approved list of parklet uses identified by the city could then be approved at the staff level so long as the project has support from the neighborhood’s business improvement district.

Any further loss of parking spaces above the ten percent threshold would require a City Council vote. Special uses outside of the umbrella of pre-approved uses would also require action by the council.

The city has designed a handbook to help prospective applicants better navigate the process in the future and is looking to identify a single point of contact inside City Hall for applicants as well as better defining the approval process and timeframe.

Mayor Robert Garcia supported the motion but cautioned that the city should also look into encouraging more public spaces to be created instead of mere extensions of private businesses into the public rights of way.

“Every time we add a parklet and don’t include the public component we’re taking away space and not adding to public space,” Garcia said. “I just don’t want us to continue to approve, or give leeway to approve these expansions while not giving the space back to the public in a bigger way.”

Giovanna Ferraro, owner of Groundwork Fitness on Pine Avenue, is one of those business owners who now has part of her operation in public space. In May, she opened the city’s first fitness parklet outside her gym located just north of Third Street on Pine Avenue.

She said it took about three years for her idea of a fitness parklet to go from inception to reality. The idea came from her neighbor across the street, Hamburger Mary’s, which was building out an expansive parklet to house outdoor dining.

Gio Ferraro at the grand opening of the parklet outside Groundwork Fitness in May 2018. Photo by Asia Morris

“I’m looking at this [Hamburger Mary’s] thing come to life and I said, ‘Screw it, I need to figure this out,’” Ferraro said.

Through saving money and a number of fundraisers, sponsorships and help through her council representative’s office, Ferraro was able to come up with the roughly $30,000 needed to pay for the design, permit and construction of the project. The other half of the battle was the permitting process.

She said it took about a year and half to navigate that portion, but the end result has been invaluable.

“You couldn’t give me a Vegas sign that brings me more attention than that parklet,” Ferraro said. “I’ve literally had people who live on 6th and Pine walk by my gym, the parklet is now there, and they come up to me ask me when I opened. I’m like, ‘I’m having a five-year anniversary in January.’”

By hosting workouts, training sessions, and most recently, a mixed martial arts promotion in her outside parklet, she’s been able to put her business in people’s faces. The residual foot traffic is something that benefits surrounding businesses, something Ferarro said she noticed at her gym in the three years that Mary’s had its parklet while she waited for her’s to be completed.

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Economic impacts aside, having activity on the city’s sidewalks and streets is beneficial to pedestrians, says Brain Ulaszewski, executive director of the design firm City Fabrick.

“Having parklets or sidewalk dining increases the amount of activity on the sidewalk, increases the amount of eyes on the street. People sort of take ownership of the street and it becomes sort of a shared space, much more so than if those same people that were dining on the parklet or on the sidewalk were dining inside the restaurant,” Ulaszewski said. “They’d be insulated from what’s going on, good or bad, in the public right of way.”

Ulaszewski’s firm has worked on a number of parklet projects in the city, including the ones at District Wine in the East Village and Hamburger Mary’s on Pine Avenue. He was encouraged to hear that the city was considering a streamlining of the process for parklets, noting that applicants he’s dealt with had often found the process confusing.

He said the challenge of addressing the mayor’s concerns of opening more public parklets will require someone to finance them. The funding could come from entities like business improvement districts or donations, but the seed money for public parklets, and having someone to oversee them after they’re built, have always been obstacles.

Ulaszewski, though, is hopeful that as parklets become more common and more people recognize the benefit in them, the conversation will shift from what it is currently: concerns about parking.

“Would you rather store one private vehicle on the street or put in a parklet that can host 20 people?” he said. “Everybody says we’re losing public right of way to a private business. But what we’re really doing is we’re taking away a storage space for a private automobile and instead turning it into a space that accommodates many more people. That’s the tradeoff.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.