The wood framing and caution tape boxed in by orange traffic barriers on Cartagena Street outside Lola’s Mexican Cuisine in Bixby Knolls marks off what’s expected to be the first permanent parklet added in Long Beach after the City Council announced an end date to the city’s temporary, pandemic-inspired outdoor dining program earlier this year.
Luis Navarro, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Brenda, said it’s special that Lola’s location on Fourth Street installed the city’s first permanent outdoor-dinning parklet nearly a decade ago, and now the location at Atlantic Avenue and Cartagena appears to be the first post-pandemic addition of permanent outdoor dining spaces.
But for Navarro and other restaurant owners, adding outdoor dining was less of a point of pride than a lifeline that got them through the dining closures during the pandemic.
“The open-streets program saved our ass,” Navarro said. “It saved everyones’, I think.”
While Los Angeles announced earlier this year that it was extending its outdoor dining program for at least the next year, with the option for its City Council to extend it for three years in total, Long Beach announced a stop date earlier this year.
The City Council voted in May to extend the parklet program through September with a process for some business owners to apply for permanent outdoor-eating areas. The program was originally scheduled to end at the end of June with some restauranteurs petitioning the council to extend the program indefinitely.
At the time, City Manager Tom Modica estimated that about 70% of parklets might be eligible to become permanent while others would have to be removed because of safety concerns due to vehicle traffic or because they’re blocking infrastructure like storm drains.
Navarro was able to apply for an open-streets grant from the city that provided him with a $10,000 grant for the construction of the new parklet, which will cover a little under half of the $25,000 projected cost.
The smaller footprint of the permanent addition will allow for parking spaces to be freed up and for diners to enjoy a more aesthetically pleasing meal.
The addition will look more or less identical to the parklet on Fourth Street, complete with metal railings, wood-panel walls, a canopy for shade and multiple 500-pound steel planters that are anchored to the concrete foundation, something that will provide space for decorative plants and provide protection from traffic.
Adding outdoor dining to the Bixby Knolls location has been in the works for years, but the pandemic and some people’s preference to remain outdoors, despite low infection rates and vaccines being readily available, helped Navarro make the move to add on this year.
Outdoor dining has the capability to transform a corridor, he said, noting that the focal point of Retro Row used to be near Junipero Avenue but has since shifted west toward Cherry Avenue after Lola’s and other businesses near the Long Beach Art Theatre opened outside dining. He’s hoping the same transformation can happen along the Atlantic Avenue corridor.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Navarro said. “People just don’t see it because right now it’s just a bunch of ugly orange barriers.”
Navarro said the Lola’s parklet on Cartagena Street is expected to be completed before the end of the month.
The city’s application for permanent parklets is 10 pages and requires applicants to provide things like a construction schedule, proof of insurance for the parklet and outlines of plans that could change public walkways, include installation of wireless telecommunication facilities and renderings of any public art that might be involved in the project.
Navarro said the insurance for a permanent spot is expensive, almost doubling the cost of coverage for Lola’s and required seeking out a specialty provider, but he intends to add another location to his other restaurant on Fourth Street, The Social List.
That parklet is expected to be installed on Saint Louis Avenue, north of Retro Row. While there has been some confusion and bumps and bruises with the program, Navarro said he was impressed with the speed that the city reacted to business owners’ needs during the pandemic, something that likely saved some from closing.
“There’s not a lot of highlighting when he city does something good,” Navarro said of the city’s quick action to expand outdoor dining options during the pandemic. “As fast as this happened, you’ll never see that again.”
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