Outdoor dining venues near San Diego beaches face tough new restrictions from Coastal Commission

Outdoor dining at Baja Beach Cafe in Pacific Beach
Baja Beach Cafe in Pacific Beach would have to replace public parking spaces where its outdoor dining area sits on Thomas Avenue under a new regulation approved by the California Coastal Commission.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The California Coastal Commission approves regulation forcing restaurants near the shoreline with street seating to replace lost parking spots or shut down al fresco dining

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Restaurants in San Diego’s beach areas are facing a tough new regulation for outdoor dining that will now require them to replace any lost parking they occupy on public streets.

The new requirement, approved Wednesday, Dec. 14, by the California Coastal Commission, threatens to upend plans by beach-area restaurateurs looking to retain outdoor seating areas they had erected in the street during the pandemic, when mandated indoor dining closures sharply curtailed business.

The commission, which was required to weigh in on San Diego’s now permanent Spaces as Places outdoor dining program, argued that without such a condition, the public’s access to the shoreline could be impeded.

Specifically impacted by the parking restriction is what’s known as the “beach impact area,” a stretch of coastline that begins at the northern end of Torrey Pines State Reserve and runs about 15 miles south to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. For most areas of the zone, the boundary extends inland approximately a quarter of a mile. The commission describes that area as a part of the city where there are chronic public parking shortages.

Tough new regulations for outdoor dining

The remainder of the wider coastal zone within San Diego would not be subject to the added regulation.

“I would expect more than a few of these restaurants will not be able to provide replacement parking because it’s already so impacted down there and they would not be able to get a (outdoor dining) permit,” said San Diego coastal planner Alex Llerandi told the commissioners. “They would have to remove the dining area and restore the area to public parking spaces.”

Commission staff explained that the parking requirement was necessary to maintain adequate access to the beach areas, which are typically frequented by people driving by car as opposed to mass transit.

“While the Spaces as Places program is expected to improve pedestrian-oriented amenities and promote alternate modes of transit, there are potential adverse pacts to public access associated with the program, and limited information on how much of a benefit the program will have,” the agency concluded in a staff report to commissioners.

Noting the high cost of housing within walking distance to the shoreline, the staff concluded that the loss of public parking tends to disproportionately impact those from lower-income areas, “which raises environmental justice concerns.”

Spaces as Places originated more than two years ago as a temporary strategy for dining venues that were financially battered by COVID restrictions. The program was such a success that the City Council last year made it permanent, codifying a number of design and safety regulations that allow restaurants to install platforms for seating along unpainted, yellow or green curbs as long as they are at least 20 feet away from an intersection, street corner, alley or driveway.

Businesses must also now secure special two-year permits and pay fees for the right to erect dining structures in the public right of way. The permanent program went into effect in July for all but the coastal zone, which has been awaiting action by the Coastal Commission.

The city of San Diego, while it had not included any requirement of its own related to the replacement of lost parking, does not oppose the Coastal Commission’s new regulation, which affects “streetaries” or street eateries, public promenades and private off-street parking areas that have been converted to dining venues.

“While the requirement to provide replacement of removed on-street parking may be challenging for some businesses to achieve, the Beach Impact Area is a relatively small area within coastal communities that are subject to higher levels of traffic congestion and parking needs,” said city of San Diego spokeswoman Tara Lewis.

The planned permanent closure of one block of Avenida de la Playa for outdoor dining is in jeopardy.
The current closure of one block of Avenida de la Playa in the La Jolla Shores area for outdoor dining could be in jeopardy as a result of the Coastal Commission action Wednesday.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The commission received numerous letters from La Jolla residents objecting to the parking replacement requirement, which they said would kill an outdoor dining program in the La Jolla Shores area where a stretch of Avenida de la Playa between El Paseo Grande and Calle de la Plata has been closed to vehicular traffic since July 2020. None, however, spoke during the commission hearing, held in Long Beach.

“As a local business of ‘the Shores’ area of La Jolla, Hotel La Jolla finds it unbelievable that the Coastal Commission would consider (ending) the street dining on Avenida de la Playa over their use of a limited number of public parking stalls,” wrote Adam Lund, general manager of the hotel. “Hotel La Jolla hosts tens of thousands of guests each year. Our guests have provided feedback about how wonderful this walkable, accessible area is during their visits.”

Coastal planner Llerandi said the area that is off limits to cars during certain hours occupies 22 parking spaces that were previously available for free.

The Coastal Commission condition does provide for an alternative way to replace lost parking through what it describes as a shared parking agreement with a third party, such as a nearby business or residential complex that might have extra private parking. It’s unknown, however, how challenging it would be to secure such an agreement.

Commissioners acknowledged that the city faced a delicate balancing act in accommodating the needs of restaurateurs and members of the public who wish to easily access the coast.

“I love seeing more walkable streets for sure but I’m also concerned about the privatization of public space,” said Commissioner Linda Escalante.

Justin McIntyre, general manager of Baja Beach Cafe in Pacific Beach, is concerned that the need to replace lost parking spaces could kill his outdoor dining area. He’s currently awaiting word from the city of San Diego on an application to retain and modify the restaurant’s streetary on Thomas Avenue, which can seat up to 60 diners. It currently takes up five parking spaces, he said.

“We hired a professional architect and paid a handsome sum of money to get it done right,” said McIntyre, who estimates the total cost at $20,000. “As the Coastal Commission is aware, parking is a premium at the beach. So unless we were to come to some agreement with one of our neighbors that has parking available, our project would be dead in the water.”


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