Outdoor Dining Comes to Laurel Street

Last night the Council unanimously approved re-configuring parts of Laurel Street into a pedestrian mall. Restauranteurs and shop owners will be allowed to use parts of the public right of way in front of their businesses.

The details vary depending upon which section of Laurel Street you’re talking about. Some will just involve blocking off the angled parking spaces so that product displays, tables and chairs, etc., can be placed in it. Others will start with that but also (mostly) close the street off to normal traffic1. Watch the city website (or view the presentation from last night’s meeting) for more details.

For now this reconfiguration will run through the end of the year. But it can be extended. So it’s an experiment, but a reasonably long-term one.

Personally, I’m excited to see this (with one caveat I’ll get to in a moment). I’ve long had the idea of turning some part of Laurel, at least, into a pedestrian mall. The main challenge has always been we couldn’t afford to lose the parking. Given the pandemic-forced reduction in people going out and about this is a reasonable time to run the experiment. The city is working to procure additional parking capacity in nearby non-public parking lots.

Like all significant public decisions it will create challenges for some and benefits for others. Restauranteurs will, I suspect, generally love it. The emergency health regulations currently forbid indoor dining and require six foot social distancing. That drastically curtails a restaurant’s serving capacity and, as relatively low margin businesses, puts them at significant financial risk. Letting them use, for free, part of the adjacent public right of way could be a life-saver.

On the other hand retail stores will likely view this experiment with varying degrees of trepidation. Losing parking spaces adjacent to their stores means patrons have to walk further to shop, risking a reduction in foot traffic. They’ll be allowed to put products on display in the closed-off public right of way. The hope is that, and the increased traffic coming to partake of outdoor dining, will help them recover from the pandemic’s effects. But it would definitely be helpful for people to patronize our local shops as much as they can.

The one caveat I mentioned earlier has to do with enforcing the emergency health regulations in the new dining environment. No business owner wants to play cop and potentially annoy customers by interfering with whatever they want to do (provided it doesn’t harm the business, of course).

That’s been a recurring problem with our existing parklet. I regularly get complaints from residents about the sidewalk being blocked by crowds eating and drinking at some event or other. You can imagine why a waiter or waitress would hesitate to ask a diner to stop blocking the sidewalk. Most will comply…but there’s always the person who’ll say “Really? Well, okay. And guess what? No tip for you tonight!”

That’s a powerful disincentive to enforcing any regulation. By extension — because it wants to have a healthy downtown business environment and benefits from the tax revenues such areas generate — the city is pretty careful not to push too hard on enforcement.

But as I made as clear as I possibly could last night we aren’t talking about lost tax revenues or promoting our business environment. We’re talking about people’s health and lives.

Most of our restaurants are following the health regulations diligently. A few aren’t, hopefully out of ignorance. Although we did have one place which apparently was running what amounted to a speak-easy. Including a guy stationed out front who’d direct people interested in hanging out in the carefully-hidden bar area to “go around back”. Shades of Prohibition…

Getting the best compliance with the health orders we reasonably can is important. Not just to protect everyone — the person who gets sick or dies from covid-19 isn’t necessarily the person who contracts it while out and about and suffers few ill effects — but also to respect the good work being done on behalf of the community by those businesses who do carefully follow the regulations.

I was gratified the Council was generally on board with the need to ensure we had adequate enforcement resources in place. Let’s hope we won’t need to use them.

Enjoy the beautiful California summer. Stay healthy. Stay safe. Help others to the extent you can.

Addendum

Because of all the questions I’ve gotten about what’s being done where, here are images from the staff presentation about each of the blocks to be included in the experiment.

Please use this information with care as the Council authorized staff to make adjustments and changes to what was approved so what’s shown here may not correspond to the way things are currently structured.

Also, be aware that certain portions of Laurel — and only certain portions of Laurel — will be closed to all except emergency vehicles during certain hours. In those areas people will be able to congregate and socialize — following the county health regulations — but there won’t be tables and chairs. Those will be restricted to the parking space areas (which will be shared with retail stores).

For those blocks where only parts of the parking area will be used for outdoor dining and use by retail stores the dedicated areas are bounded by red lines. The paired yellow lines are openings that will be required to be kept open for emergency access (e.g., EMTs).

near The Refuge
I believe all the parking spaces in the 700 block will be dedicated to dining and use by retail stores. Only emergency vehicle access will
be allowed in the street itself (which will otherwise be open to people).
I believe all the parking spaces in the 600 block will be dedicated to dining and use by retail stores, up to where the paired red Xs outside
the small parking lot appear (i.e., just south of Blue Line Pizza). Only emergency vehicle access will be allowed in the blocked
portion of the street which will otherwise be open to people.

  1. Deliveries requiring the use of Laurel will be allowed in the early morning hours. 

38 thoughts on “Outdoor Dining Comes to Laurel Street”

  1. debbie mcdermott

    when you are reconfiguring the parking for this new endeavor, be sure to comply will all ADA parking requirements, please.
    You cannot reduce ADA parking, People with mobility disabilities, should not have to walk farther to their destination retail stores or restaurants.
    Thank you

  2. Mark Olbert

    Hi Debbie, and thanx for raising that point, which is an important one.

    Part of the plan which I didn’t mention (there are lots of parts!) in my article involves adding additional ADA parking so we remain in compliance with the law. They obviously aren’t in the same locations, which means they may require some adjustment by people, but they will be there.

    1. Vonnie Rejae

      I think this is wonderful news. It won’t be the city of good living if the restaurants go out of business.
      Restaurants can’t survive if they don’t have room between tables and most do not have any room outside.👏👏👏👏

  3. I am impressed that your trying to come up with ideas to get us back on track, however, eating in the street does not appeal to me and what happens when the cold weather returns right back where we started. walking long distances to shop also does not appeal to me and parking??? hope that works out, and no bathrooms available hummm. you mentioned closing off Laurel St. well we are not Europe, Laurel Street into a pedestrian mall really??? what has happened to the wonderful San Carlos, city of good living…loved the small town atmosphere.
    come on people back to the drawing board, you can do better.
    You asked for feedback…..smile

    1. Terry, would you prefer closed businesses and no reason to be on Laurel, or open businesses and a compromise on Laurel parking? Eating on the street may not appeal to you, but eating inside the restaurants isn’t going to work for some time to come. I see a net improvement for both customers and businesses for now, better than doing nothing. It’s an experiment I look forward to, and perhaps it will become a seasonal feature. It could be a new draw.

  4. Mark Olbert

    Hi Terry, fair questions. The bathroom situation can be addressed, I think, in several ways. We need to ensure it gets addressed, of course. As for Europe, yes, we’re not…but they’re not uniform either in their outdoor dining practices. I think it’s a matter of whether our experiment is enjoyed/appreciated, on balance, by enough people than.

    San Carlos is still a small city. Our population has been pretty stable since the early 1990s, I believe. It’ll be interesting to see what the 2020 census shows.

    What’s changed is it’s now a lot more “vibrant”, for lack of a better term. A much more active downtown, at least until recently, which the merchants and many people like (not everyone, though, to be fair). More stuff to do and a greater variety of stuff to do, too, I think.

    Whatever happens with this experiment — and it is an experiment — I think we’ll learn a lot, both positively and negatively. That’ll help us build a better future than we’d otherwise have. Just my perspective, of course.

  5. Mark,
    Since last night’s meeting went late, I left for bed and did not watch this item on the agenda. When is it estimated that the blocks will be closed and this “experiment” is to start. I do think that there is a potential parking problem. Thus, a lot of the businesses will suffer because customers will not want to have to walk a distance to patronize them and will go elsewhere to spend their money. People really don’t want to park at Cal-Train’s lot and walk up and across ECR, especially when it starts raining. Wheeler Plaza has timed parking and Williams Plaza and the one behind Bof A. will be filled. The neighboring streets are already short of spaces due to the multi-unit buildings that exist and are popping up. Many of these occupants will not be happy unable to find a spot at or close to their homes. I think we will see that people will be encroaching on the private parking for businesses and we should see an increase in cars being towed. I have had this problem with my business parking area on Laurel (just north of SC Ave) and have had to tow several cars away. I hope this works the way it is envisioned and does not become another reason for people to consider moving away.

    1. Mark Olbert

      Hi Mike,

      Part of the thinking is the lower amount of patronage downtown (still likely to be the case under the relaxed restrictions; not everyone wants to risk engaging with groups of people given how contagious covid-19 is) will mean there should be more parking available in the Wheeler Garage and the parking lots off of Laurel. The city is also contracting to gain access to the SamTrans garage.

      Granted, that will mean some people (i.e., the ones previously lucky enough to score a space on Laurel near where they want to shop) will have to walk further. But most people have had to walk a ways for a while now.

      I should also note additional handicapped spots are being implemented to compensate for the ones lost by the street closure.

      How this will work out is admittedly uncertain since we’ve never done it before. OTOH, it’s pretty clear the restaurants would otherwise face a severe problem — because they cannot, by themselves, be re-configured to support enough patronage to survive — while the retail stores will probably suffer some degree of negative impact due to losing parking immediately adjacent to their stores. OTOH hopefully there will be more people going to downtown, interacting safely, and patronizing those same stores.

      Like many other things it’s a matter of balancing competing forces and interests. Which generally results in what I call a “least bad” decision, rather than a “good” one.

      Have we figured out the ideal “least bad” decision? I doubt it. Have we made a reasonable attempt at one? Yes, I believe we have. And we can adjust things, or even cancel the program, if that becomes appropriate.

    2. I understand the importance of our restaurants . My point is that by closing off the streets you will he hurting the retail and service business. Customers will not walk from far away to go to them . Especially when the streets will be full of people and the servers will be going back and forth from the restaurant to the street .
      Those business are already suffering by being closed so many months. . By closing them off you will hurt them even more. How do you expect them to survive.
      I am glad I do not own a business on Laure but I Have lived here for 40 years and Will be sorry to see the outcome.
      You are helping the restaurants but Clearly forgotten the rest.
      I appreciate being able to leave my opinion.

      1. Mark Olbert

        We’ll have to agree to disagree, Carole (which is fine). Plenty of people already walk from the areas they’ll now have to park in to get to a store. Is that less convenient? Yes. Is it enough to keep people from shopping? Personally, I very much doubt that.

        I understand the perspective the plan will not have the same impact on retail shops and restaurants. But retail shops and restaurants were negatively impacted to different degrees by the shelter-in-place orders. And that’s still the case. For example, retail shops can open but indoor dining is still prohibited (and may well be for some time).

        It’s not a matter of siding with retail stores or restaurants. The goal is to help both survive.

        1. I rarely post anything but this is something I do not agree with.
          Im not against restaurants having outdoor dining. I think if they have the room it’s a wonderful way to enjoy a meal .
          I just don’t think it is fair to the rest of the business on the street to cut them off .
          I’m sorry but I disagree with your analogy Restaurants were open for take out all this time and were earning a small income . retail and service were closed until recently and earning nothing.
          When I first read this I didn’t like the idea but I just drove down Laurel those orange barriers are
          very unappealing .
          San Carlos once had wonderful parking options. No longer .
          It’s a difficult time for everyone . I do not believe this will help.

          1. Mark Olbert

            Fair enough, Carole. I don’t agree with your analysis but I appreciate you sharing your perspective.

      2. Carole, I completely agree with you. It will be much harder for me to access the businesses on Laurel if the street is closed. A temporary use of the sidewalks and some parking spaces for this summer and fall is certainly understandable but to consider permanent street closure is not going to benefit many of us who live in San Carlos. Hopefully, this decision will be rethought by the city.

        1. Hi Michelle,

          It’s a temporary experiment, scheduled to expire at year-end unless re-authorized by the Council. Which can also terminate it at any time should that become necessary or desirable.

    3. Brigitte M De Wild

      Hello
      Is the block that the post office is on
      Also is going to be blocked
      Which blocks on Laurel st are going to be close
      Thank you

  6. How is the restroom “situation” being addressed? Will diners be able to use the indoor restaurant restrooms?

    1. Mark Olbert

      Hi Jacqueline,

      Based on a similar question I got over on NextDoor I asked staff to look into making it a condition of the encroachment permit required for a business to use some of the public right of way that they allow use of their restrooms. Staff is researching the idea but thinks it, or something like it, will be doable.

  7. This is a great call – I know a dozen families that will be extremely excited by this development, and can’t wait to get back to Laurel! Here is to hoping it works and stays a permanent part of the city. Kudos to you and the council for having the vision to act quickly and decisively.

  8. When you eat and drink, you will HAVE to use the bathroom! Where? In the Restaurant?
    Parking will be a big problem, but if you have businesses with big parking areas, open their parking lots to all of the public without towing their cars, that will help a lot! (banks, grocery stores, title companies etc.) All city’s small businesses need everyone’s help!! Please have an open mind.

    1. Mark Olbert

      Hi Yolanda,

      I’m confident there will be an answer on the bathroom front. But you’re right, it’s something that needs to be addressed.

      Opening up private parking lots could be difficult. They are private property and the city can’t require they be made available to the public without providing compensation to the property owners. Nor are the property owners required to accept any such proposal from the city.

      We could always ask, however. My sense, though, is that most business owners with parking lots near the downtown (of which there aren’t many) would not be willing to rent out any of their space.

      The city is negotiating access to the SamTrans garage. I think that will be adequate. But only time will tell for sure.

      1. I am really glad to see San Carlos willing to try new things to help our great downtown businesses. I look forward to participating in this experiment. As for parking, we were always walking a few blocks during dinner hours so I don’t see a huge difference here. We will try and bike to dinner now too that the weather is nicer.

  9. Closing off parts of Laurel to allow more foot traffic and restaurants to operate seems like a great idea. It should drive more traffic to Laurel and hopefully help the retail shops, not hurt them. Santa Monica has streets like this, sections of London like Covent Garden and many other areas, use nice looking carts with flowers or trees to block off the roads until it’s open again. It allows walking in and out of shops and restaurants more freely. I think it’s a good idea to try this and see if it helps the shops, restaurants and Laurel street.

  10. It’s interesting how many comments predict a bad outcome before we’ve done anything! I think this is a great experiment. I love Laurel St and will be happy to go to many of the restaurants even if I have to walk a bit farther. And that means I’ll walk by the shops I like too. Thank you for being creative and thinking about how to help our businesses.

    1. Good points, April. Although I can appreciate the concerns people are raising. If nothing else change is hard and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics it’s one person’s irrelevancy (not saying you’re asserting that; it’s just how I phrase this point) is another person’s vital public interest. Which is why it’s almost always about striking a balance.

      We’ll have to see how the hoped-for balance plays out here. Personally, I think it’ll be positive (on balance). But if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have supported the measure (and it’s why I pushed for enforcement of the health regulations because, for me, that’s a critical part of the balance).

  11. The change here reflects some very innovative thinking and should be applauded. And it is an experiment so if it does not work out, it can be tweaked or even eliminated later. I think the sense of community will increase as everyone can see more of their neighbors occasionally dining out as they go to their restaurants. I am excited to see this work out for the benefit of all involved.

    For those who are saying that the retail shops are inconvenienced: do consider that when you drive down to Laurel to park and go to a shop, you rarely end up parking right in front of the shop anyway, even before this experiment. Most of the time you are either a few blocks north or south on in the lot or garage. So this does not change that too much.

    I’m actually also hoping that there will be some impromptu musicians that seek to take advantage of a new audience here. Unplugged of course.

  12. Joan Abrams

    I guess this is the end of curb-side pick-up. One can hardly park at Wheeler plaza, then walk to the restaurant for pick-up. Particularly one who is 75 and handicapped. I sure glad everyone who wants to go to Town and drink at the bar won’t be inconvenienced. Of course, other retail stores will suffer, but they can at least drown their sorrows.

  13. Misha Silin

    Thank you for sharing the details.

    I love opening Laurel to outdoor dining, and I hope we can make it permanent. Let’s have more open spaces for people, not cars!

    I have seen pictures of the water walls and it’s not very elegant. I realize it’s an experiment but I’d love to see something more visually pleasant rolled out so that people can enjoy outdoor dining and not feel like they’re sitting in a temporary construction zone and are an inconvenience for cars.

    Also it’s not clear when these closures will be – has that been decided? Let’s make it every day!

  14. Sandy Boyer

    I am very disappointed about closing Laurel to street parking. Many residents shop here, but don’t eat at the restaurants. Many people also do not have handicap status, but have mobility issues. Parking in Wheeler Plaza or behind the banks, both areas already mostly full, will not provide close enough parking for those who cannot walk blocks, especially with bags of purchases. Incidentally, if this is going to be a pedestrian mall & food court, then all bicycles, scooters & skate boards should be prohibited. Install bicycle racks at both ends of the closed blocks. A lawsuit is just waiting to happen when non-pedestrians speed by or hit the slow walkers who have made it to the downtown core. And, I was at Bianchini’s yesterday at 3:20 pm. Very few people on Laurel in the outdoor dining, no one in the stores. So, RIP downtown retail.

  15. I love this! We’ve already dined outside For two meals and really appreciate the collegial atmosphere. We are in our 50s and have had no trouble finding parking and walking to our favorite restaurants. We’re so tired of eating at home and getting takeout. Having a real meal with waitstaff is such a great change of pace. Thank you for keeping San Carlos awesome by helping our small businesses stay afloat.

  16. Cathy Baird

    I personally am not in a hurry to do more than take-out, but I appreciate this experiment. I hope the attention to ADA parking will work for those who need it. I would also like to know where bike racks currently are and whether a couple more might be added. (I like Sandy’s suggestion about both ends of the closed blocks.) In the past (pre-COVID), I have resisted riding my bike downtown because of traffic and because I’m not sure where I can park the bike. This would be a good time to give it a try.

  17. I love the outdoor dining and the downtown conversion. Everyone needs more exercise and most should be willing to walk a few blocks to shop/dine, etc. I don’t think retail will suffer.
    Now if we could convert the whole sidewalk and street to one even level with cobblestones, we will start to resemble the walkable piazzas of europe. (We will need some heat lamps in the colder months…)
    Thanks to those who worked to come up with a creative solution to COVID mandates . I personally hope that we continue this as a permanent change to our downtown.

  18. “Water Wall” sounds interesting until you look it up and see it’s a filled plastic barrier like you see on highway exit ramps. Yuk. Hope they aren’t the standard garish red or yellow.

  19. I have worked in San Carlos since 1990. I attended San Carlos High School. I have lived and worked here almost all of my life. First let me say as a business owner on South Laurel Street since 1999, I am angered that the business community at large was not notified of this item on the city council agenda. This impacts my business greatly. Secondly, I’m noticing that all who are lauding this arbitrary decision by the city council, are not business owners on Laurel St. this will impact customers greatly. In the downtown blocks where’s there are already full city lots, this will cause congestion in the surrounding neighborhoods.
    But in the South Laurel blocks where there are NO lots, this will be a disaster. I am on the 1600 block of Laurel. I was contacted on Thursday by someone from the Dept of public works, Who told me this was happening on my block, Monday, decision made, end of subject. My parking goes way. Where on earth are my Clients, let alone all the people who want to eat at the restaurants supposed to park? Across El Camino? Can you just see my 80 year old, walker using clients playing frogger?? I am outraged at the idea. Especially the fact that we were not allowed to have a voice. I understand the restaurants need to comply with health orders, but like a previous commenter said, they have been open and serving, while my Hair Salon has been closed. Now you want to make it harder for my clients desperate for a haircut to get to me. When I asked for a designated spot for my clients, I was told parking is for everyone, yet you are designating parking only for restaurants by giving them outdoor dining. And when my neighbor has had 2 parking spaces blocked off only for her takeout customers. Which I didn’t have a problem with, as there was street parking around it. But now, there won’t be. What I’m getting is, San Carlos ONLY cares about restaurant owners. Not retail, service businesses or their customers. To say I am Livid is putting it mildly.

  20. Mark Olbert

    Hi Kelly,

    You’re mistaken about several things, including the scope of the experiment. It was not authorized, and is not being implemented, anywhere south of the 900 block…and to my knowledge it’s only being implemented on the 900 block in front of Refuge and The Arsenal.

    The Council did ask staff to consider extending the program to include restaurants outside the downtown core. But “consider” is not the same as “go do it”. And if anything were to be done in those other areas I suspect it’d be like what’s happened in front of the Refuge and The Arsenal (i.e., dedicating some of the public parking spaces to outdoor dining by setting up barricades, not closing down the street).

    I’ve also asked to have an item put on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting for the Council to consider directing staff to modify the hours of operation of the part of the program on the northern nd of Laurel Street which does involve closing the street to through traffic. I encourage you to lobby the Council to consider taking the matter up.

    The plan currently in operation contemplated a significant increase in foot traffic throughout the closed off sections every day with the idea being that the increased pedestrian activity would lead to an increase in walk-in business at retail stores. From what I can see that didn’t happen, and isn’t happening, so the hours of operation should be revisited.

    I can’t comment on why you weren’t contacted during the analysis and planning phase that lead to the experiment being approved. The Council set up a subcommittee (Ron Collins & Adam Rak) a number of weeks ago to consult with staff, talk to the Chamber and businesses and develop a plan. Not having been on the subcommittee I don’t know the scope of their outreach. But I suspect your business may not have been included because it wasn’t part of the area being considered for the initial phase of the experiment (i.e., the northern end of Laurel). I do know that a number of businesses in that area were contacted and provided input to the subcommittee. But not everyone who was contacted did so.

  21. Hi Mark, The ADA laws need to be meet for those of us with disabilities. I was told there was 4 spots. Certainly not enough. And the bathroom issues also needs to be addressed. I can’t wait for these issues to be addressed so we (people with disabilities) can also enjoy the experience of outdoor dining in our wonderful City. Sounds like fun to me

  22. Mark Olbert

    Hi Leanne,

    So far as I know the city is compliant with the ADA regulations. I don’t remember if it was me or one of my colleagues but the question was asked during the discussion prior to approving the plan. I’ve also had conversations with the city attorney since then in response to feedback from residents and he again confirmed our compliance.

    Which doesn’t mean we couldn’t add more ADA spaces, of course. I’ll pass that along to staff.

  23. Kelly Quinn

    Hello Mark. Well, apparently I was not mistaken about anything. Imagine my surprise to open my shop this morning (after being closed for 3 months) to find city workers installing the ugliest red plastic “water walls”, of which I was told by someone who I will not name, who works for the city, cost $100,000. Again, I am in the 1600 block. Miles from downtown. I spoke to my neighbor Tracy who owns The Toss. I told her I was unhappy about losing the parking. But understand as she has a very busy place. However, they also gave a spot to the coffee shop on the other side of me. One spot. Surrounded by ugly red plastic barriers. This coffee shop is only open until 1pm. She also didn’t use it today. So, I was correct that this was an arbitrary decision from the city, with NO consideration other than you had to ask for it. No impact studies on parking, or contacting the other businesses on the block to get a consensus. Again, Unlike downtown, we do NOT have parking lots down here. ONLY street parking. So when my 85 year old client with a walker was trying to get dropped off for her appointment, her son had to park way down the street, and assist her to my door. This is beyond outrageous that this could be done this way. After having been closed so long, I am very busy attending to my clients, so I can’t check my online presence much this week. Can you tell me when the next city council meeting is? I would like to attend.

  24. Mark Olbert

    My apologies, Kelly. I was (obviously) wrong to say your section of Laurel was not included in the parklet program. I’ve asked staff whether I misunderstood the directions I thought we gave (i.e., to focus on the 600-900 blocks for now) or the rules evolved (that could’ve happened; I’m not on the subcommittee the Council appointed to develop the concept).

    You are also correct in that the parklets were only installed at the request of the adjoining restaurant/coffee shop business owner.

    The next Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, July 13th. Although there may be a special one, focused on the street closure/parklet/pedestrian mall effort, before then (I’ve asked for one and I believe some of my colleagues have as well). No details yet on whether that will happen or, if it does, when it would be.

    You might want to sign up for eNotify: https://www.cityofsancarlos.org/Home/ShowDocument?id=4892. It will send you emails about upcoming Council meetings, Planning Commission meetings, whatever you subscribe to.

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