San Diego Planning Commission supports initiative for temporary outdoor spaces to be permanent

One Paseo's outdoor dining during the pandemic.

Though many questions came up about the city of San Diego’s initiative to transition temporary outdoor spaces to permanent ones, none of them were enough to stop the city Planning Commission from voting in favor of the “Spaces as Places” program during its Sept. 9 meeting.

A primary example of space to which this could apply is outdoor dining that has proliferated since last year to help restaurants replace indoor capacity lost in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Spaces as Places is proposed for the post-pandemic world, when restaurants can operate at full capacity indoors and outdoor dining would represent an expansion of restaurant seating capacity and … enhance the overall public experience,” said project manager Sameera Rao.

The Planning Department developed the Spaces as Places initiative “to provide permanent options for outdoor dining that simultaneously provide flexibility for business owners to use the public right of way while contributing to the enjoyment of the public space, and increasing opportunities for more enjoyable pedestrian travel,” according to the city.

A Spaces as Places design manual released before the Sept. 9 meeting identifies five types of spaces that could be permitted: sidewalk cafes, “social curbs,” promenades created by closing a street to vehicular traffic, outdoor dining on private property such as a parking lot, and “streetaries,” previously referred to as parklets.

Rao said public feedback from online workshops and surveys indicated “strong support for permanent operation of outdoor dining in the public right of way.”

Commission Chairman William Hofman agreed with that input, saying: “I’m very supportive of this program. … It is going to help small-business owners, it’s creating great pedestrian spaces, encourages people to get out of their cars, promotes our Climate Action Plan — there are just so many pluses to this. I’m glad to see it come.”

Rao outlined some of the proposed regulations for four of the five options (sidewalk cafes were not discussed) as created with input from various city departments.

The most regulated option, streetaries, would be allowed where there is on-street parking at unpainted, yellow or green curbs, but must be at least 20 feet from an intersection to preserve line of sight, Rao said. Roads with a streetary must have a speed limit of 30 mph or less, she said.

Also, the streetary must be five feet from fire hydrants and 10 feet from storm drain inlets and must not be placed directly on utilities infrastructure such as manhole covers. If located within 150 feet of a residential area, operating hours would be limited to 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

A streetary permit would be valid for two years, after which it could be renewed.

Though other options had fewer regulations, the operational requirements applied to streetaries would apply to others as well for continuity of enforcement.

For example, a social curb — a permanent extension of an existing curb into a parking area to facilitate different activities — is a permanent change to the public right of way and “the applicant will be required to work closely with a city engineer to ensure compliance with engineering standards,” Rao said.

Outdoor dining on private property is currently allowed, but Spaces as Places would introduce new regulations and design requirements.

For promenades, the initiative would implement regulations that “streamline the approval process for these types of promenades where locational and design requirements are satisfied,” Rao said. “When all requirements are met, it is proposed that the application will be reviewed ministerially [over the counter, without local review]. However, when certain requirements are not met, deviations can be requested.”

In such cases, the application will be subject to community group review.

A fee structure also has been proposed for the outdoor spaces but not finalized. Early estimates are $20 per square foot, or about $300 for a typical-size parking space, to be paid monthly.

The revenue from the fee would go toward projects designed to enhance the use of surrounding public spaces, “with at least 50 percent to be used to support businesses in traditionally underserved communities,” Rao said. This could include expanded sidewalks and more street trees and recreational amenities.

In August, the Community Planners Committee, a group with representatives of each of the city’s communities, requested two months to review the proposal and get input from the communities. The request was denied and the Planning Commission heard the proposal 16 days later.

Speaking to the perceived lack of review from local planning boards, Hofman said, “I normally support more community planning group involvement. But in this case, this program has essentially been running for the last year and a half on a temporary basis. So we know what we are going to get here. … We’re going to make it better, so I’m willing to move forward.”

A motion to approve the staff recommendation, with direction from the commission to provide a way to delineate the 5-foot sidewalk space, passed unanimously, moving the proposal to the City Council.

The proposal will be presented to the council’s Land Use and Housing Committee in the fall, Rao said. A date was not yet set.