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