Al Fresco

The corner of Lighthouse and Fountain in Pacific Grove now buzzes with nightlife, with outdoor dining at four restaurants that built parklets during the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, staff at some of the larger Monterey hotels would direct guests to the usual areas for dining: Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row or Alvarado Street. Now they’re sending them to Pacific Grove, says Liz Jacobs, who co-owns the restaurant Wild Fish with her husband, Kelvin. “It’s a coup for Pacific Grove to be at the top of the list,” Jacobs says. The blossoming of the town’s outdoor dining, with charming parklets, string lights and live music, has created a new “scene,” she says. “Who would have thought quiet little Pacific Grove could be a scene?”

Jacobs and her husband have invested approximately $50,000 in their parklet since last summer, using high-end materials, a retractable awning, planter boxes designed by a local artisan and top-of-the-line heaters. She says restaurants can get away with spending less, but based on the support of the city of Pacific Grove and the possibility of parklets becoming permanent, Wild Fish saw the investment as a safe bet. Outdoor dining has been a lifeline for keeping the business afloat and people employed through the pandemic, she says.

On April 7, the P.G. City Council will consider making some long-term changes to P.G.’s municipal code to keep parklets into the future. Councilmember Jenny McAdams, who wrote the council report on the issues involved, says outdoor dining has created an inviting scene. “The pandemic has really given us an opportunity to see if outdoor dining is going to work, and I absolutely think it has,” McAdams says.

Carmel City Council is also exploring how to make parklets permanent through an ad hoc committee that meets regularly and is preparing a survey to get feedback from residents.

But the issues in making parklets permanent are not small. In the rush to keep restaurants open, cities waived fees to use public right-of-way spaces and fast-tracked encroachment permits. Carmel City Administrator Chip Rerig says he had in mind keeping jobs for vulnerable employees when he issued those approvals, using his emergency power authority. Now that the end of the pandemic is in sight and more tables will open up indoors – increasing restaurant revenues and jobs – the question arises over whether cities should charge for the use of public space and if so, how much.

Cities may decide to take back some of the space given up during the pandemic, allowing a smaller footprint for tables and chairs, Rerig says. They may decide on infrastructure changes, paid for by restaurants, to accommodate both pedestrians and tables, like sidewalk bulb-outs used in Monterey on Alvarado Street. McAdams says disability access for pedestrians traversing some stretches of sidewalk has been an issue in P.G. and needs to be addressed.

Other issues, as raised in a letter to Carmel last month by attorney Molly Erickson, who was hired by an anonymous group of residents upset with parklets, include loss of parking and altering city streets without going through a general plan amendment or zoning changes. In P.G., McAdams says the city will have to consider other uses like live music and amplification.

The biggest challenge is water. Restaurants pay fees to the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District based on how many seats they have. A year ago, the district’s board approved an urgency ordinance that waived fees on any new outdoor seats for up to one year. That permit expires in May.

“There is no new water,” says Dave Stoldt, MPWMD general manager. The Peninsula continues to operate under a cease-and-desist order for illegal over-pumping of the Carmel River. A restaurant that moved all 50 seats outside, can’t keep those 50 seats and reopen their 50 inside, for example. Under existing rules, they could keep up to 25 outdoor seats without going over their permit. (By a complex calculation, outdoor seats are considered to use less water.) Restaurant owners could permanently remove indoor seats from their permits if they chose to increase outdoor seating.

The MPWMD board is scheduled to consider extending the urgency ordinance at its meeting on April 19, but once restaurants are back to 100-percent indoor capacity the urgency ordinance will end. “Even if people think it’s a free pass, we will be back to the rules as they were,” Stoldt says. “We’ll be enforcing again.”

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