The city of Napa’s parklet program, which has brought outdoor seating to downtown restaurants through the pandemic, could become permanent next year.
A parklet is essentially an outdoor dining area built over one or more curbside parking spaces. They’re central to the effort to help downtown businesses accommodate outdoor diners and wine tasters during the pandemic, which helped those businesses weather California's public health bans on indoor dining.
Another part of that effort — the one-block stretch of Main Street between Second and Third streets that’s been closed to cars and open for outdoor dining — may also become permanent.
But the city first needs to consider design standards of parklets, how the parklets may interfere with city maintenance and the future of permit fees for outdoor dining — which have been waived during the pandemic — said senior city planner Michael Walker at a Napa City Council meeting this week.
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The parklet program, which was started up by the city in July 2020, has resulted in approximately 19 parklets in downtown Napa today, said Walker. Those parklets are currently allowed under temporary permits that last through Feb. 28, 2022.
The program kicked off months after California public health restrictions had closed indoor dining and the potential length of the pandemic was setting in. A shift to outdoor dining gave restaurants space to operate — except for a period in Dec. 2020 and January this year — which contributed to their survival.
Craig Smith, executive director of the Downtown Napa Association, said the city’s move to allow and permit parklets has bolstered downtown businesses at a time of great economic uncertainty.
And, he said, the parklets have brought an unexpected liveliness to downtown Napa — with people out on the streets every night drinking wine, eating food and enjoying the outdoor spaces.
“Not to be indelicate, but you saved our butts at a time we really needed it, and you did it very, very quickly,” Smith said. “The unexpected consequence of what we created was an amazingly vibrant downtown.”
Under a permanent parklet program, businesses could be required to pay a one-time administrative permit fee — covering design review and planning — and then a yearly encroachment permit fee based on use of public sidewalk or parking space areas, Walker said.
Most council members said they were pleased with the parklet program and want it to become permanent in some respect. Several also said they’d like to see city staff engage further with stakeholders — possibly including residents and those who don’t have a business interest in the program — to figure out where exactly to go with a permanent program.
The councilmembers also largely agreed the parklets had livened up downtown Napa.
“I try to get downtown at least once a week on a date night with my husband, and every time I go, it’s just packed and vibrant,” said councilmember Mary Luros. “It’s just become such a really fun city.”
Some council members suggested the city needs to look into the potential public benefit of parklets, considering they’re on city property. That could include thinking about whether people are allowed to sit down at the parklets without being patrons of the restaurant, said council member Beth Painter.
Painter also said the city should be smart and strategic with its planning for a permanent program, which she said means staff shouldn’t feel pressure to act quickly. She recommended that the temporary permits set to expire at the end of February be extended an additional six months.
“I have a pretty strong feeling that we’re not going to have all of this worked out to the degree and satisfaction that you all want to see by that point, and I don’t want to leave the business community hanging,” Painter said.
Mayor Scott Sedgley said he has concerns about safety of the parklets, that the city should consider possible legal consequences when designing a permanent program. He also said the white tents that occasionally cover parklets — which all council members said they didn’t like — could also create safety hazards.
Walker added that it’ll be vital for the city to work with restaurateurs so they can gain a better understanding of what the cost of keeping a parklet permanently could eventually be, including costs potentially added on by other agencies like NapaSan. The parklet could be considered an expansion of a restaurant’s operating footprint, Walker said, which would bring additional costs.
“Beyond the city fee structures and whatever we come to a determination on a rental of a parking space that has intrinsic value to it, there are costs associated with businesses when they’re expanding their footprint,” Walker said. “And some of those can be exorbitant. And that’s beyond the city’s control.”
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You can reach Edward Booth at (707) 256-2213.