The parklets that popped up across the city and the country at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were a lifeline for restaurants. They also took up parking spots, hindered sidewalk accessibility and obscured the view of traffic at some busy intersections.
Many believed the temporary loss of parking and other related issues were a worthwhile trade to help small businesses in the midst of a public health crisis, but as COVID-19 emergency orders have now expired, a new question is coming up in some neighborhoods—particularly in parking-impacted Belmont Shore: Is the tradeoff still worth it?
That debate is now unfolding in real time, as the city begins to implement a program that will allow businesses to install permanent parklets. It’s a completely separate process, with completely different requirements, than the temporary program that sprang up during the pandemic.
Legends Restaurant and Sports Bar and Belmont Brewing Co. are at the forefront of this process, after receiving preliminary approval for their permanent parklet applications earlier this month. Now, the next phase of this revamped process is slated to begin, as residents who oppose parklets in Belmont Shore have signaled that they intend to file appeals.
Meanwhile, some two-dozen other applications hang in the balance—23 parklet applications and three sidewalk dining applications had been submitted as of Monday, according to the city.
So, what does the new permitting process mean for businesses and neighborhoods? Here’s everything we know so far.
How will the permanent parklets differ?
Makeshift parklets and sidewalk dining areas sprung up en masse across the city during the pandemic as part of the city’s Open Streets program, which was intended to help businesses—restaurants in particular—move dine-in services outside. Back then, the program was free to apply for, and it was all loosely regulated. Now, business owners are navigating an entirely different permitting process to bring back parklets after the pandemic-era structures were required to come down Jan. 31.
This time, the rules are strict and differ completely from the Open Streets program. For starters, it now comes with a price tag, a long bureaucratic to-do list and a set of stringent construction guidelines. To approve a permanent parklet, the city will consider a laundry list of factors such as local speed limits, pedestrian safety and proximity to public utilities or storm drains, as detailed by the city’s original parklet law adopted in 2018.
And, because Belmont Shore resides in the Coastal Zone, businesses there will be required to post signage that declares the area free for public use.
“The sign shall indicate that no purchase from the abutting business is necessary to use the public parklet,” Rick de la Torre, a spokesperson for the city’s Development Services, told the Long Beach Post.
That sign must also include a phone number for the Public Works Department, where anyone can report a business that is non-compliant.
For example, one could host a small reading group, gather with friends, read a book or even bring food from a different restaurant to any parklet in Belmont Shore, even after the business has closed, de la Torre said.
“All parklets are open and accessible to the general public at all times,” he said.
They also cannot be locked by the business at any time, though personal property such as furniture could be “secured at the discretion of the property owner,” according to de la Torre.
For Legends, that means the roughly 20 seats noted in the application for the 301-square-foot permanent parklet will be available to anyone and everyone, purchase or no purchase, and at any time of day or evening.
These rules also apply to some of the city’s first permanent parklets such as Lola’s and Gusto Bread, though they are not required to post signage stating that the parklets are for public use. Signage is only required within the Coastal Zone.
What’s the debate?
A lot of concerns about permanent parklets have come up from some neighborhood groups—especially in Belmont Shore.
Opponents, such as those that are part of Parking not Parklets and the Belmont Shore Residents Association, say that bringing parklets back would limit parking and negatively impact those with disabilities trying to navigate sidewalks.
Those concerns have been well-documented, but residents have more recently brought forward new concerns about the regulations surrounding public use. In particular, the issue has gotten more attention as community members have said the requirements were not clearly presented until recently, at the last zoning administration hearing on May 8—though the stipulations were part of the city’s original parklet law, which predates the pandemic.
For BSRA board members Julie Dean and Brian Cochrane, they aren’t confident that the city would run checks on restaurants that may try to deter or discourage the public from using the space without a purchase. Dean and Cochrane also worry that eateries may eventually place pressure on the city to modify the rules after the parklets have already been built.
“What if residents actually decide to treat it like a public space and they start occupying it?” Cochrane said. “Well, the applicants are gonna go and say, ‘We spent the money, we’re printing the bill on this, it needs to be modified so that we can make money and the next thing you know, the change will be, only a certain amount of occupancy by public residents, not paying customers is allowed.’
“It will always change to the benefit of the business, because once they get it, they’re going to hold onto it and protect it.”
Although Dean and Cochrane said they oppose parklets primarily because of the parking spaces they would sit on, they told the Post that their end goal was to defend and preserve public spaces.
“It’s still an issue, but if they’re going to continue down the path of approving things, then yeah, it definitely should be (for public use),” Dean said. “It’s currently public space, and to take that away from the public is wrong.”
The sole purpose of the pandemic-era parklets was to help businesses survive restrictions that severely limited seating at Long Beach’s restaurants, so it wasn’t uncommon to see “no outside food or drink” signage or to be verbally discouraged from sitting within a restaurant’s parklet without making a purchase. Dean and Cochrane worry that these sorts of loose restrictions will still remain an issue even after businesses get through the permanent parklet process.
Dean said she’s particularly concerned about how public use will be regulated when it comes to parklets outside the Coastal Zone, where signage isn’t required.
“The thing is, with no signage, what sane human being is going to sit in there without thinking they can’t?” Dean said.
“I mean, there are gonna be people who are obnoxious or drunk or whatever, who might go sit in Lola’s or Gusto’s (parklet)—but the average person is not going to do that,” Dean added.
But Kurt Schneider, president of the Belmont Shore Business Association, believes that the requirement that parklets be available for public use will benefit the local neighborhood.
“What’s really kind of shocking to me is that when you’re in a community that wants more park space, and they want more community space, that anyone would be against this,” he said.
Schneider asserted that, even though businesses will technically be footing the bill for a public space, parklets will be assets for the community as a whole, “as long as the person is acting like a decent human being, and they’re being respectful to the public and they’re being clean.”
“Obviously your desire is that they’re going to buy something and frequent your business,” he said. Still, “if I owned a business, and I wasn’t that busy inside or outside, and I had five people sitting in my parklet, it’s basically an advertisement that it’s a great place to hang out.”
What are other businesses thinking?
Colossus owner Kristin Colazas Rodriguez is among Second Street business owners who would like to eventually bring her parklet back, as she said it made the sidewalk area safer and more welcoming. She told the Post recently that she was wary of what issues could come along with permanent parklets that are open for all, such as public drug use, but that ultimately, curating spaces for the community was in line with her mission.
“I could see that maybe becoming an issue, but it’s not something I’m very concerned with,” she said. “Our mission is to meet the needs of our community and to build communities.”
If and when Colazas Rodriguez gets to rebuild her parklet, she said she would likely dedicate a portion of it to bicycle parking, something she says is The Shore is severely lacking.
Lately, she’s been hesitant to enter the multi-permit application process, which includes a hefty price tag and a long bureaucratic to-do list. Even after preliminary approval, her parklet could be subject to a letter of opposition—like the one that’s expected to be filed against the parklet at Legends. For now, she’s waiting to see whether Legends makes it through the final stretch of the process.
What’s the new process?
Businesses seeking a permanent permit are required to post a large public notice for 30 days. Any opposition received would trigger a hearing before the City Council, but the council will have final say on whether a parklet will be approved.
And while the permanent program is still new, paperwork has already been filed against at least a few proposed locations. A letter of opposition, for example, came on March 20 against Supply and Demand, according to Joy Contreras, a spokesperson for Public Works. Meanwhile, Legends has already received an appeal, which differs from a letter of opposition. It will trigger a hearing with the City Council.
According to Dean and Cochrane, local group Citizens Advocating Responsible Planning submitted that appeal on Thursday.
The parklet application, meanwhile, can cost restaurants anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000, depending on a number of factors such as square footage and design. In Belmont Shore, owners will first be required to obtain a Coastal Zone development permit for parklets, which costs $6,200.
Once all is approved, the building costs remain. Matt Peterson, co-owner of Legends, previously told the Post that his parklet could cost somewhere between $60,000 to $70,000 to construct.
And if a new business wants to open up in a space where a previous business had a parklet, it’s also important to know that parklet permits are also not transferable, according to the city’s handbook. In some cases, Public Works may allow a business to keep a parklet in place while the new business owner enters the permitting process. But if the building owner is the permit holder, the permit will remain valid even through a change of businesses operating in the space.
For all parklets, insurance covering liability, including liquor liability if alcohol is served, must also be obtained.
If someone using the parklet becomes injured, de la Torre said that parklet permittees are contractually required to “indemnify and hold the city harmless for any liability stemming from the permission granted in connection with the parklet.” He added that incidents would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine each party’s liability.
But the process doesn’t exactly end there. Businesses are subject to an annual inspection and permits must be renewed annually.
Without any modifications made, that renewal costs $760 with a 3% surcharge and one hour of inspection. With modifications, the renewal costs $1,375 with a 3% surcharge and an inspection, according to Contreras.
Still, from Schneider’s perspective, all the work and cost will be worth it in the end.
“In my professional opinion, this is one of the most dynamic things you can do to a retail district,” Schneider said. “By slowing down traffic, which [parklets] do, by having people outside of a business, it tells the person…to slow down and ‘you too could hang out and have a good time.’”