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LA’s Al Fresco Dining Program in Jeopardy After Funding Quietly Runs Dry

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Mayor Garcetti’s plan, meant to offer no-cost outdoor dining alternatives to restaurants, was supposed to last at least until the end of the year. Now a crucial portion of the program has been quietly shelved by the mayor’s office and LADOT

A pair of diners sit next to a brick wall at an outdoor table in Los Angeles.
Diners sit at a sidewalk table
Wonho Frank Lee

An important part of Los Angeles’s highly-touted LA Al Fresco initiative has quietly been put on indefinite pause due to a lack of funding, says NBC 4. The program has been aimed at offering brick-and-mortar restaurants the opportunity to quickly expand outdoor seating into parking lots, sidewalks, and (in some limited cases) onto closed-off sections of public street, by offering no-cost design help, permit approvals, and physical infrastructure along the way. Now the program has reportedly been shelved for the time being, and nobody is quite sure when it might return.

The first phase of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s plan, launched in May, succeeded in signing up hundreds of restaurants across the city for expanded outdoor sidewalk and parking lot dining during the spring, but the second round — pushed in a live press conference by the mayor in late June — was meant to specifically transform streets into safe dining areas and to include some fully-licensed street food vendors across the city. However, the so-called LA Al Fresco Phase Two seems to have been much less successful.

In a phone call with reps for the mayor’s office after first publishing, Eater has confirmed that 1,859 restaurants in total have been enrolled in the Al Fresco program since the initial May launch, with only 50 restaurants approved for some form of on-street dining (that is, safe dining that is not on sidewalks or in parking lots) as part of Phase Two. Those with approved permits are still able to use the space given to them, but funding for the physical safety infrastructure that goes along with those on-street dining permits has run dry. The mayor’s office also tells Eater that it is investigating the number of street vendor approvals made under Al Fresco, and will be providing a forthcoming statement.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s office provided the following further breakdown specifically for on-street dining:

  • 286 applications for curbside dining (serving an individual restaurant)
  • 144 of these locations are not eligible (speed limit too high, near a fire hydrant, in a shopping plaza on private property, etc.)

Some 50 street locations have been approved by the City, with 48 installed and two more still scheduled. The city also also received 15 applications for lane closures that would allow for simultaneous seating for multiple businesses at once. So far, four locations have been approved and installed by the city.

NBC 4 has uncovered correspondence with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation that indicates the program has been largely put on ice. “We are not able to approve on-street dining options for the Al Fresco Program,” one email says, adding that there is “no official statement at this time” about why the program has defaulted, or when (or even if) it might return. Another email obtained by NBC 4’s investigative I-Team says that “due to overwhelming demand for this program, we have exhausted our initial allocation of resources.” That email was written by an unnamed LADOT supervisor.

Reps for LADOT provided the following statement:

The program continues to approve permits for expanded outdoor dining on sidewalks and private parking lots, which make up the vast majority of applications. LADOT also continues to implement travel lane closures supporting multiple restaurants. We’re finalizing a process that will allow individual businesses to install approved parklets using private resources, while we identify additional resources to support those businesses that may not be able to do so independently.

Less than a month ago, Mayor Garcetti said that the Al Fresco program would continue at least through the end of 2020, but without further funding or resources for the on-street portion of Al Fresco, it’s unclear how more permits could be issued for on-street dining. Others like Councilmember David Ryu have asked to make the extended al fresco program permanent.

The city of Los Angeles currently faces an unprecedented budget crisis, leading to further calls for government financial reform and a general defunding of the Los Angeles Police Department. Neighboring cities like Pasadena, Culver City, and West Hollywood are under similar budgetary pressures, but all have managed to secure both street and sidewalk space for outdoor public dining. Per NBC 4, the mayor’s office has said that it is exploring new funding avenues to reignite the program, but the process is ongoing and restaurants can still apply for no-cost permits for parking lot and sidewalk dining.

What’s more, the Los Angeles-specific initiative has always excluded unlicensed street vendors, who number in the thousands and participate heavily in the informal food economy of Southern California. In fact, despite legalization steps in recent years, there is still only a very narrow and costly path to full legalization within the city of LA, meaning most vendors — like Angel’s Tijuana Tacos just last night — still face fines and confiscation every time they set up to sell on a sidewalk, even if the restaurant right next door got permitting to do the same for free.

Here’s the statement from the mayor’s office:

Small businesses are the beating heart of our local economy, and Mayor Garcetti is committed to doing everything possible to help them survive this crisis. We’ll continue to offer permits to all businesses that are eligible for the program, and are currently identifying new funding opportunities to help provide them with additional outdoor dining infrastructure.

It’s worth noting that just this week, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis’s motion to launch a pilot vending program was unanimously approved at the county level, which means unincorporated areas outside of the city of LA could soon see a legal framework for street food vendor application and permitting. The pilot program focuses on vendor outreach and education and compliance within various county administrations like the Department of Public Health, and requests a $1 million fund for the program.

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