After years of decline, Main Street in Santa Monica is now dotted with bustling restaurants and cafes full of people. That’s thanks to the advent of outdoor dining – a silver lining to the pandemic devastation for many restaurants. So the launch of a new program to make those restaurant tables in what-used-to-be parking spots permanent should be good news. But many restaurant owners are furious with the City of Santa Monica for charging them to use the outdoor space – and even give some of it up.
The city is the first in the region to make outdoor dining permanent and start charging for the use of outdoor space. Cities like Culver City and Burbank’s temporary programs are set to expire at the end of the year. The City of Los Angeles is still working out its plan to make outdoor dining permanent. They say a plan will be in by the end of the month.
As of October 1, Santa Monica will require restaurants using parking spaces for dining areas, or “parklets” as they call them, to pay for permitting and inspection. “The one-time fees include plan-check fees, normal fees you would pay if you are opening a business or expanding a business,” says Constance Farrell, the Communications and Public Information manager for the City of Santa Monica.
The city also told businesses they can only use two parking spaces for outdoor dining space though many, like Ester’s Wine Shop and Bar, had built out more than that.
Manager Vi Nguyen explains the impact on their business: “For us, one car space could take away three or four tables, which would be really good revenue for us on a given night. On top of that, we'll have to start paying for the square footage of the two spaces. … So we lose money, because we're losing seating inventory, which is really helpful, most people prefer to sit outside. That's really hard for us to kind of take on.”
Another twist to the program: If a restaurant added seats in their parklet during the pandemic, they will have to pay a one-time fee of around $1,300 per seat. Altogether the fees can add up to the tens of thousands for some businesses.
Main Street’s sustainable seafood restaurant Crudo e Nudo has a very tiny footprint, and their business plan relied on the free added seats. “If we lose the parklet, it's losing our business, and it's almost $50,000 in fees,” says co-owner Leena Culhane. She points out that in nearby Venice, restaurants owe the city nothing for using outside space: “You know, three blocks up, they're not asking for that.”
Once a restaurant has cleared the permitting hoops, Santa Monica's permanent parklet plan calls for a monthly rent of $680 for use of the spaces. That’s not a lot for some, but it’s a serious hurdle for others. At Uppers Cafe, a small coffee shop on Broadway, owner Raimonda Gintaliene has given back one of her two spaces because the financial hit is too large for her year-old business. “It's not much for maybe bigger corporations or something like that,” she says. “But for small businesses like us, it's big money.”
Constance Farrell, public information manager for the City of Santa Monica says they hear what these restaurants are saying. “We want to work with businesses where if this is a burden for you, we want to get you on a payment plan. We want to work with your business to ensure that this isn't a barrier to entry.”
Business owners say they want the city to approach this new program in a more tailored way that takes into account their different revenues and business models, so that they can afford to stay.
“It would be great if they would view this as an investment in their city and not something that they would stick to businesses that just made it through the pandemic. Why punish the survivors?” Crudo e Nudo’s co-owner Brian Bornemann asks.