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LA Mayor Agrees to Keep Outdoor Dining Spaces for at Least a Year

With City Council help, the al fresco dining areas could last for at least the next three years

Outdoor dining patio at Kato in West Los Angeles, California.
Outdoor dining at Kato
Matthew Kang

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has just signed an emergency ordinance for the city, extending several COVID-19-related measures meant to continue to support restaurants and bars throughout the ongoing pandemic. The ordinance, which is set to become codified in the next two weeks, provides sweeping clarity on several fronts, including the continuation of outdoor dining spaces for business across the county. Those parklets and parking lot dining areas that emerged during the pandemic thanks to Garcetti’s LA Al Fresco program would be allowed to continue for at least the next 12 months, with the possibility of extension for another two years beyond that date if approved by the City Council down the line.

While somewhat flawed in its approach, the Garcetti-promoted al fresco program did serve as a lifeline for many restaurants during the various reopenings and indoor dining closures of 2020. In May, the Los Angeles City Council voted to make the al fresco program permanent, pushing the city’s Bureau of Engineering to craft recommendations on how to formalize the many ad hoc sidewalk and street setups in front of restaurants and bars. It’s a hugely popular program, in a city that has the right weather for outdoor dining year-round.

Garcetti’s emergency ordinance also updates the city’s parking variance needs related to changes of use for restaurant spaces up to 5,000 square feet. While wonky, the policy essentially means that new and existing restaurants can suspend the need to provide a set number of on or off-site parking spots for cars, freeing up the city for more business density and a more transit-oriented approach to everyday life — to say nothing of the reduced fees needed for opening a business in the first place.

The mayor’s new emergency order seeks to eliminate several bureaucratic issues long advocated for by people like Amped Kitchen’s Mott Smith and F E Design and Consulting’s Eddie Navarette. Both Smith and Navarette believe the parking requirements are policy dinosaurs that have not kept up with changing attitudes about public transportation, ridesharing, and speedy pickup and delivery needs. The ordinance is also the first major implementation of the recommendations from the city and business owner-led effort, the Restaurant Reboot Working Group.

Navarette sees a lot of potential in this ordinance, including changes regarding parking and the coveted and expensive alcohol licenses from California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “If a chef took over a space, and because of parking limitations were not able to legally turn into a sit-down restaurant, or could never get an alcohol license because they were never permitted as a restaurant, this changes all of that,” says Navarette by phone.

Navarette says there’s also a benefit for city workers who have had their budgets slashed. The ordinance comes “at a time that government agencies and other budgets have been extremely restricted,” says Navarette, pointing to furloughs and pandemic-related slowdowns across the city apparatus. Those public servants also “need relief,” he adds, in addition “to our public sector.” Freeing them up from the cumbersome process of permitting for things like parking variances — while also codifying the city’s al fresco program into law — are easy steps that nearly everyone can get behind.

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