Outdoor dining parklets could remain as permanent fixtures in San Mateo after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo via Joe Flood/Flickr)

San Mateo’s City Council voted Monday to extend street closures through September, giving restaurants the means to continue outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Street closures will continue on B Street between Baldwin and 3rd Avenue, either through September or until the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency, whichever is sooner.

Before Monday’s renewal, the closures were set to expire March 1.

The council also voted to continue suspending enforcement of minimum parking requirements and zoning regulations, meaning businesses in the city can continue outdoor operations once they comply with state and local regulations. That extension lasts 90 days until May 2, and businesses will still have to work with landlords or property managers to get permission to operate outdoors.

Assistant City Manager Kathy Kleinbaum said that the resumption of outdoor dining has been a “critical lifeline” for businesses.

Given that businesses have already invested in creating curbside parklets, the city will also consider permanent or seasonal street closures and extending the parklet program beyond the pandemic.

If the city were to adopt a more permanent parklet program, staff recommended that parklets be allowed throughout the city instead of specific areas; that the spaces be considered private spaces for restaurants to maintain and control instead of being public spaces; and that there should be no limit on the number of parklets allowed at first.

Businesses would be limited to two parallel parking spots or three diagonal ones and there would be a fee attached – possibly $1,000 per parking space used, based on meter revenue, plus a $500 application fee.

Council members mostly agreed with the staff recommendations, but discussed whether the $1,000 fee should apply to places that don’t have parking meters. Councilmember Amourence Lee said the fee might not make sense for areas without a parking meter, while Mayor Eric Rodriguez and Deputy Mayor Rick Bonilla agreed that the $1,000 per space fee should apply regardless.

“If there’s a meter there or not, it should be irrelevant. They’re still getting the benefit and that money could go towards administrating the program,” Rodriguez said, adding that the money could be re-distributed and given to another business or nonprofit in need.

Councilmember Lee suggested the possibility of publicly controlled spaces in addition to the private parklets and encouraged the city to financially support businesses that might need reduced fees.

“Everyone’s really strapped and for the businesses that have made these investments to build out the parklets (and) are still alive after everything that we’ve all been through, I just want to make sure that we’re supporting them procedurally, administratively and also financially if there’s bandwidth to do that,” Lee said.

Kleinbaum said staff is working on policies for a permanent parklet program that would differ from the guidelines for temporary parklets.

Long-term parklets would have their own traffic protections such as wheel stops and bollards so that water-filled barricades from the city would no longer be required. Overhead structures to protect against bad weather will not be needed for long-term parklets as indoor dining would resume once the pandemic is over.

Staff will return to the City Council with a proposal to adopt permanent parklets before September. Businesses will also have time to adjust and adhere to new guidelines before a long-term program is implemented.

During Monday’s meeting, three members of the public spoke in support of extending the street closures and outdoor dining allowances. People also sent written comment in support of the continued street closure at B Street, saying that it allowed for greater walkability and a pedestrian-friendly experience.

Lisa Diaz Nash, a San Mateo resident who ran for city council last year, said that she supported the extension of outdoor dining and hoped that the parklets could be refined based on feedback from surrounding businesses.

“It’s critical that we support our restaurants but it’s also critical that we ensure that retail businesses surrounding the restaurants are not cut off from access based on parklets going beyond the frontage of the restaurant,” Nash said.

Councilmembers agreed that if a parklet program were adopted, restaurants should be limited to using the space at their storefront.

Another concern with the parklets was the impact on parking, which is already a challenge in the city.

Bonilla said that he had received feedback from some people who had to park several blocks away from their destination on B Street for example.

Steve Ugur, owner of Pausa Bar and Cookery on East 4th Avenue, San Mateo, said that he would not want the parklets to stay when the pandemic ends since parking is already terrible in the city.

Another challenge is restaurant staff have to move tables and chairs back indoors every night. In Pausa’s case, that’s 12 tables to move.

For now, Ugur is grateful for the parklets.

“The pros are that it enables us to have seating when we can’t use inside,” Ugur said. “The cons are weather. It doesn’t get super cold in the Bay Area but it’s harder to get patio heaters because everyone needs one right now.”

The agenda and video from Monday’s meeting is available at https://sanmateo.primegov.com/Portal/Meeting?compiledMeetingDocumentFileId=12232.