Walnut Creek’s Future Begins NowMay 27, 2020 12:39PM ● By Pam Kessler
As the city and the county slowly emerge from months of sheltering in place, new realities like social distancing and mask wearing will be with us for a long time. So will the deep scars and catastrophic losses for retailers, restaurants, cultural organizations, and millions of unemployed Californians. As the process of adaptation continues, and reinvention becomes the new norm, the question becomes how do we reopen society? Against this sobering backdrop, the City of Walnut Creek is ramping up efforts to facilitate the beginning of a bounce back.
With the virus plateauing but still present, City Manager Dan Buckshi describes the city’s approach to reopening as “guided by the data and driven by the county health officials,” emphasizing the continued need to ramp up COVID-19 testing, tracing, and tracking. “We should anticipate social distancing to last into the fall.”
Last week, during a special three-hour virtual Walnut Creek City Council meeting, city staff unveiled a multi-pronged plan to “Rebound Walnut Creek” (here), tackling everything from increased lane access for cyclists to parking meter fees and popup dining areas. In addition to granting Buckshi emergency decision-making powers to bypass the Design Review and Planning commissions for lengthy approvals, the council voted (3-2) for member Cindy Silva and Mayor Loella Haskew to put together a team of experts to weigh in on how to reopen Walnut Creek once Contra Costa County gives the green light.
Parking is one of the most talked about topics in this town. Locals have loudly applauded the city’s free pandemic parking program—one of the only silver linings in these times when easy access to pick up food from restaurants is paramount. It remains unclear how far beyond May 31 free parking in Walnut Creek will continue. “We’re not sure what parking demand will be when we reopen, but we can adjust quickly,” says Deputy City Manager Carla Hansen, pointing out the need to reevaluate hours and fees when meters are over 85% occupancy. Hansen says extending meters from two hours in prime locations to three-four hours is on the table, along with adding up to 70 meters in “refreshed” purple parking zones to expand access to lower cost meters. “While the council approved a revenue forecast in the FY2021 budget that assumed free parking would continue until October 15, 2020,” explains Assistant City Manager Teri Kilgore, “this was for financial planning purposes, not for how we will manage parking.”
The recent trend of allowing restaurants to take over city streets has hit Walnut Creek, thanks to the outpouring of community support for innovative ways to save the restaurant industry, which stands to lose 50% of seating capacity for in-house diners. While restaurants in most Bay Area counties can offer takeout and delivery only, many cities have started to explore an expansion of outdoor dining for when shelter-in-place orders are amended to permit sit-down service. City staff say they are also looking at ways for restaurant tables to spill out onto sidewalks, streets, parking lots, and plazas.
Owners are pushing for reserved parking spaces on each block for food pickup and relaxed rules from ABC for carryout cocktail service in these newly created spaces. Other ideas include adding walk-up windows and moveable kiosks for ordering food to enjoy in designated spaces. Walnut Creek’s new Economic Development Director Collette Hanna says, “We want everyone to know this is a safe place to come to, this is a great place to be.”
The retail shops, restaurants, and bars that weather the tumult of the next several months (or more) will be well-positioned to thrive in the post-COVID-19 landscape. Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Wilk, who has been working behind the scenes on strategies to reopen Walnut Creek since the pandemic began says, “We want to reopen safely following the county guidelines. Let’s cautiously move forward and find a sweet spot to help as many businesses as possible. We’re anxious to revive our city.”