Oakland could make outdoor restaurant parks and sidewalk cafes permanent

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Oakland is considering making outdoor parklets and sidewalk cafes permanent — a pandemic-era feature that has helped spur economic activity.

City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to extend a program that allowed many restaurants and businesses to use outdoor spaces without having to go through a thorough application and permitting process. If the council takes no action, the program would expire at the end of March.

The program, called Flex Streets, was launched in 2020 and simplified the city’s permitting process so businesses could quickly and easily get approvals to use sidewalks, streets, private outdoor spaces and property. the city for parklets during the pandemic.

Many Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, have used similar programs during the pandemic. Some restaurants have spent tens of thousands of dollars building parklets and outdoor spaces for customers.

Oakland could implement a tiered fee schedule in 2023 — Dec. 31 for installations on private property and July 31 for all other aspects of the program. City staff said permit fees were not collected during the pandemic, resulting in lost revenue. Additionally, parking management staff estimate that the program’s parklets caused the city to lose up to $420,000 in gross parking meter revenue from July 1, 2020 through January 1, 2022.

Still, the city said the program boosted economic activity during a time of uncertainty and overall contributed to the city’s revenue. Companies that built parklets paid more than $693,000 in business and sales taxes to the city in 2021.

“Flex Streets has allowed retail businesses and restaurants to retain employees, generate tax revenue and activate city streets during tough economic times,” city staff said in a report.

Before Flex Streets, restaurants that wanted to build outdoor seating had to apply for different permits, which could sometimes take years. The city has also limited the number of permits issued each year.

“You had to jump through ten thousand hoops to get outdoor seating,” said Nigel Jones, owner and chef of Kingston 11, a Jamaican restaurant.

Under Flex Streets, businesses only had to apply for one permit and did not have to pay a fee. The city’s new proposal would delay the fee until July 2023, when the annual permit fee would go into effect. The only businesses exempt from the rules are those that fall under certain fairness criteria, including those located in parts of the city that have been disproportionately affected by COVID.

Additionally, Flex Streets is removing any limitations on the number of street vending permits issued per year. Street vendors can sell food from kiosks outside. During the pandemic, the city implemented a pilot program with licensed street vendors at Lake Merritt.

Thanks to Flex Streets, Jones said he was able to turn land he owned behind Kingston 11 into outdoor seating. Before the pandemic, the city had rejected his offer to use the land, he said.

Jones said he was able to add at least five additional tables outside. Inside, its restaurant has a capacity of about 70 people.

“I’m not giving up,” Jones said. “It’s really beautiful. Our regular diners…they’re asking for tables there. To tear it down would be just throwing money away.

Deb Collard, the owner of RIDE Oakland, a cycling lesson studio, said she spent about $6,000 building an outdoor park so she could take outdoor lessons during the pandemic. And although the space only allows for about 12 bikes compared to the 20 she can have inside, it has helped keep her business alive.

“The parklet has really given us an opportunity to retain some customers during this time,” Collard said. “The investment was worth it. I don’t think we would have survived without it, to be honest.

Sarah Ravani is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @SarRavani

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