How will Walnut Creek keep its romance with outdoor dining alive?Jan 27, 2022 07:49AM ● By Harper Klein
Now almost three years into curbside dining downtown, the city is beginning to think about what happens next and what kind of architectural, financial, and safety guidelines to impose on restaurants for operating open-air dining rooms on public streets.
When COVID-19 restrictions forced restaurants to close indoors, the city launched a Rebound Program that gave restaurants quick clearance to set up tables on streets and sidewalks. With free access to public parking—approximately 125 spaces in total—restaurateurs created in-street dining areas made of market umbrellas, metal rails, large potted plants, and weighted barrels.
With limited guidelines, designs and sizes varied widely: some, like Main Street Kitchen and 54 Mint, were built to last well beyond the pandemic while others, like SF Creamery and Capullo Cocina, were just ready to meet the moment with pop-up tents.
And while generally a success, space inequity, blocked retail and salon storefront visibility, loud music, public safety, lost parking revenue and access to meter parking spaces, plus haphazard esthetics due to vacant and tattered parklets, prompted the city to work on the complicated process of making parklets permanent via the 2.0 version of Rebound called Downtown Next.
“If you use space for one use, then you make it unavailable for other uses,” said Assistant City Manager Teri Kilgore at the January 18 city council study session. “You have to take into consideration the physical environment, the needs of businesses, and the vibe we want to create downtown.”
With the conversation moving to permanent parklets (a five-year horizon), changes to traffic circulation were proposed initially, including an option to turn Main and Locust into one-way streets, but the council unanimously rejected it.
Lost revenue to the downtown parking fund—which pays for the Free Trolley, beautification, and events—is estimated annually at $7,000 per parking space. Downtown Next will require restaurants to cover this loss while also mandating platforms and other structural design upgrades to improve patio aesthetics.
“We relaxed our standards and in exchange the businesses built their spaces and absorbed the costs. We let businesses get creative, but we may want more of a look that reflects the downtown landscape going forward,” said Kilgore.
Speaking on behalf of Walnut Creek Downtown, Board President and developer Brian Hirahara stated that maintaining a European environment with open air dining is critical, but he conceded that safety and aesthetic standards are necessary. “Allowing for customization of dining structures is important for a restaurant’s brand; it’s also an opportunity for a new wave of beautification in our downtown.
Until Downtown Next guidelines are adopted sometime in May, restaurants with outdoor dining that obstruct access to neighboring businesses must obtain letters of support from the neighboring businesses and property owners in order to continue operating in the street.
And apparently, under a two-week vacancy policy, restaurants who do not use their street popup space for two weeks or longer, but continue to keep it blocked off from parking, will forfeit the space.
Because outdoor dining has been popular with diners and business owners polled by the city, there hasn’t been much debate about its post-pandemic shape. Now is the time to weigh in while the city is evaluating how the Walnut Creek outdoor dining scene will look and function for years to come.