Manhattan Beach: Outdoor dining costs waived until September

by Mark McDermott 

 

The Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday night waived its costs for allowing dining decks on the public right-of-way downtown through September. 

A staff report showed that the city is losing $734,597 annually due to the 78 metered parking spaces now occupied by dining decks. This cost includes parking meter and citation revenue as well as potential lost revenues valued at $3 per sq. ft. for adjoining non-parking space being used by restaurants. 

City traffic engineer Erik Zandvliet told the council that Governor Gavin Newsom’s lifting of all restaurant occupancy restrictions last month raised questions about how long such pandemic-generated emergency measures can last. The City began allowing dining decks last July. 

“A lot of restaurant customers are not comfortable with dining indoors yet, and so there’s still a need or a desire to have outdoor dining for the customers,” Zandvliet said. “For the restaurateurs, they’re also looking to recover some of that lost revenue that they lost for the past year. The Governor’s office also extended the ability for beverages outdoors until the end of this calendar year, December 31, as another means of encouraging recovery. The concern, at a certain point, is that the city would be in essence giving a gift of public funds for the use of the right of way, at no cost, for private economic gain. This has been justified during the pandemic due to restrictions on indoor dining….At what point does that change?” 

City Attorney Quinn Barrow said that the Governor’s encouragement of outdoor dining through the end of the year and the state’s announcement that relaxation of Alcohol Beverage Control standards would be ongoing —  allowing alcohol in the new outdoor dining spaces and to go —  answered that question in terms of when the City allowing public space for dining constitutes a gift of public funds. 

“Implicit in both of those announcements is that we haven’t reached that point yet, that the businesses still need some help,” Barrow said. “That’s really the top question for the Council, so right now I don’t see the gift of public funds.” 

Zandvliet said that 24 restaurants are using parking spots; parking revenue lost for each spot is $26 a day, or $790 a month. Fifteen restaurants are using leasable space on sidewalks, and if charged $3 per hour —  what the City has historically charged Uncle Bill’s, Oceanview Cafe, and Nick’s for use of outdoor space —  those restaurants would face between $150 and $2200 per month in charges. 

Councilperson Steve Napolitano questioned if the City was still charging those restaurants who were paying their $3 per square foot charge, as they had pre-pandemic. 

“So we’ve been charging for Uncle Bill’s, or for Nicks, or for any of the Metlox places during Covid?” 

“Yes, those are existing arrangements,” Community Development director Caroline Tai said. 

“How is that  fair, when everyone else gets outdoor dining, they don’t have to pay for it?” Napolitano asked. “And if it’s a pandemic and this is being done for economic reasons because we want to support business and everything, yet we’re still charging these other folks….That’s consistently inconsistent, equally unequal.” 

Mayor Suzanne Hadley referenced a chart provided by the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Business Association that showed 15 nearby cities who have not only waived fees for use of public spaces but also for permit fees during the pandemic. 

“Everyone pivoted, everyone scrambled, and we really helped our businesses build these decks and start outdoor dining,” Hadley said. “And that’s been hugely successful. But I would like to point out that out of 15 cities, we were the only ones who charge permit fees, and for those folks listening at home that is sometimes thousands and thousands of dollars.” 

Hadley said some of the cities are not charging for use of space until next year. “I would submit that we do not want to be the first mover,” she said. 

Mayor pro tem Hildy Stern said that restaurants’ importance to the community has really come to the fore during the challenge of the pandemic. 

“I think we’ve always really appreciated our businesses, but it’s never been this conversation that we’ve had in the last year and a half about just how important our restaurants are to the broader business district,” Stern said. “We’ve heard that, and we’ve really seen the evidence of that…We’ve heard from our retail businesses that keep asking us to help the restaurants because it helps them as well.” 

The council unanimously voted to waive fees through September 7 and included the restaurants, such as Uncle Bill’s who have been paying. ER

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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