Outdoor dining in the historic core of Downtown San Pedro is something that our town has wanted for many years. Councilman Joe Buscaino has been a driving force of the concept and has worked closely with the Property Owners’ Alliance to develop a program. Though his efforts, the commitment of the Alliance and ironically, the COVID-19 crisis, outdoor dining is here to stay. For the past several months, the Alliance has been working with the City and local businesses to develop several parklets in Downtown San Pedro on 5th, 6th and 7th streets.
First, two questions: What is the “Alliance?” And what is a “parklet?”
First answer: The San Pedro Property Owners’ Alliance is also known as a Business Improvement District, a creature of state law formed to provide services to benefit its members. The Alliance members are the downtown property owners, and they collect money from themselves — not city funds — and spend them on essential services to supplement city services, things like safety and security, tourism, and marketing of Downtown San Pedro. The development and promotion of outdoor dining, for example, is one such service that would benefit all members of the Alliance by improving the vitality of Downtown San Pedro.
Second answer: a parklet is a parking space in a commercial zone that is sectioned off with a safe barrier and built out with a level deck and decorative walls to be used as a sitting and dining area. It is repurposed public space. The idea of parklets is not new. Communities all around us have developed some version of them in the shopping, dining and commercial zones of their cities.
Before we ever heard of COVID-19, the Alliance was working closely with Councilman Buscaino and the City of Los Angeles to develop an outdoor dining program of parklets in Downtown San Pedro. The plans and permits were well in progress and nearly in final stages before COVID-19.
Then, the pandemic hit. First and foremost, we are in the midst of a health crisis. But our response to the health crisis — our efforts to control further outbreak and spread — creates an unprecedented economic crisis. At the center of the economic crisis are small, family-owned businesses, restaurants and shops that are tenants of locally-owned properties, all of whom employ our neighbors and friends and keep our economy going.
In this COVID-19 economic environment, parts of the original outdoor dining program that the City had planned were not feasible, at least not in the short run. Earlier in the year, with the economy running strong and businesses open for normal operations, it made sense to invest in parklets of a certain design and cost. Once the economy shut down, it became a much more difficult proposition to invest in the proposed designs and construction.
Initially, all retail and dining were closed. As the economy reopened, we applied strict rules on the numbers and spacing of customers. Those spacing requirements had a significant impact on smaller, local businesses, especially dining establishments.
That was when Mayor Garcetti introduced an emergency plan called LA Al Fresco. The plan allowed for restaurants to reopen with seating on the sidewalks in front of the business (and maintain access for pedestrians). LA Al Fresco also said that local business associations and community groups could apply for temporary use of the street parking to create parklets for outdoor dining during the remainder of the summer.
The Alliance, in partnership with the councilman, immediately applied for outdoor dining and a parklet plan for multiple spots in and around 5th, 6th and 7th streets. We called it San Pedro Al Fresco, and the application was approved. The plans were redrawn for a quicker buildout, and the Alliance made a commitment to invest in San Pedro Al Fresco through its existing security, tourism and marketing budgets.
Outdoor dining is a good idea at any time, but it becomes critically important in this pandemic response. Recent studies have shown that activities conducted outdoors are a safer alternative to indoor operations because of the natural breeze and movement of air.
When the City allows the use of a public right-of-way for dining, it is allowing us to repurpose property and create new dining and leisure space, providing for safe social distancing in the open air and stimulating much-needed economic activity.
That is why the Alliance is invested in the program. Working with the City, the Alliance looks forward to developing and expanding the outdoor dining opportunities throughout the historic core of San Pedro. While these first parklets are temporary, the hope is to make them a permanent part of the Downtown San Pedro experience. The Alliance encourages everyone to visit Downtown San Pedro and enjoy safe and fun outdoor dining. Come see it. The vitality and success of our downtown will depend upon your responsible participation. As always, be safe and well. spt