CITY COUNCIL – Downtown Manhattan Beach outdoor dining is extended through summer
by Mark McDermott
Manhattan Beach restaurants’ use of temporary outdoor dining decks, allowed by the City Council as an emergency use of public space months into the pandemic, has been extended once more, until mid-September.
The Council recognized problems with the current allowance of outdoor dining downtown, and in North Manhattan Beach, including downtown residents’ complaints about increased traffic congestion, and loss of parking impacting other businesses, but reluctantly agreed that restaurants should keep the decks at no charge until at least September 15, when the matter will be revisited.
“Do I love this? No. Am I sympathetic to the downtown residents? Yes,” said Councilperson Suzanne Hadley. “ But it will end. This whole bloody pandemic. has gone on longer than we thought. I thought Gavin Newsom, the governor, might rescind the State of Emergency in March and he didn’t, so we’re not going to tell our restaurants it’s all over everything is back to normal….It’s just so much uncertainty. Let’s get through another summer.”
The Council once again stopped short of increasing occupancy limits, but suggested that enforcement for exceeding occupancy would not be a priority. The $3 per sq. ft. fee previously charged for the use of public right of way, which was lifted in March after restaurants objected to occupancy enforcement that limited indoor and outdoor combined occupance to pre-pandemic limits, will not be charged.
“No change in fees,” said Mayor pro tem Steve Napolitano. “And we shift enforcement down to the beach, where they can give tickets to dog owners.”
The temporary outdoor dining deck program was launched in June 2020 in an effort to help restaurants whose indoor dining had been shuttered by the pandemic. The City at the time defied LA County Health Department regulations by declaring the outdoor areas “parklets.” Between June 2020 and August 2021 the City waived $886,618 in revenue from unused parking meters, use fees for the public right-of-way, and parking citations. Last August, the council, for the second time, extended the use of the decks, scheduled to close after Labor Day, until January, but also began charging an under-market-rate $1 per square foot rate. That rate was increased to $3 in December, then lifted in March. The City began enforcing occupancy limits in January.
Napolitano said increasing occupancy limits would make an already unfair program worse unless every restaurant in the city could increase its limits.
“Everyone says, ‘We want to help our small businesses,’” he said. “Well, we are not helping your small businesses. We are helping 26 restaurants…So if we’re going to say let’s toss occupancy aside, then toss it aside for every restaurant in Manhattan Beach. The structure right now is incredibly artificial and it’s biased.”
Restaurant owner Mike Simms, who is also president of the Downtown Business Association, said that the City’s own surveys have shown that people want outdoor dining, but in order for restaurants to afford the increased costs of operating those decks, more occupancy is needed.
“The community wants outdoor dining. It was part of part of the survey, and I’ve heard it expressed over and over again in person,” Simms said. “And so how do you, in the long term, have outdoor dining and make it successful for the City and for the businesses that operate it? It’s a tough nut to crack, and it’s difficult to imagine without being able to have an increased capacity in some fashion to afford what is required.”
The City’s Community Development department is in the process of hiring a new planner who will be tasked with helping develop a permanent outdoor dining program. Downtown resident Jim Burton, who has been critical of the extended temporary program, acknowledged its popularity, but he said it was time to move on.
“One of the things that came out of Covid, with dining, is downtown Manhattan Beach has lacked outdoor dining,” Burton said. “We need a long-term solution. We don’t need to just start piecemealing this whole thing together with all these wooden dining decks sitting in the roadway. We need them out of the roadway.” ER