Nancy Coupal refers to the parklet that stretches outside her Ramona Street eatery, Coupa Café, as a "lifeline."
For the past two years, she and dozens of other restaurant owners have been banking on these newly constructed outdoor dining areas to keep their businesses running and their customers safe during the pandemic.
"We needed parklets to survive," Coupal said in an interview. "Even now, the majority of the people prefer to sit outside."
She is not the only person who likes parklets, which have replaced parking spaces with dining areas in various locations throughout downtown and other commercial areas. Residents and visitors overwhelmingly love them, according to city polls, and the City Council has consistently supported keeping them around, even as it continues to adjust the rules and design standards that govern outdoor dining.
The city's latest revision, however, will likely require Coupal and other restaurant owners to substantially scale back their parklets. By a 4-3 vote, the council voted early Tuesday to institute a new requirement for parklets like Coupal's that extend past adjacent storefronts: a letter of consent from neighbors.
In Coupal's case, the landowner next door is Elizabeth Wong, a local developer who has been lobbying the city to kill Coupa's parklet and who, as such, is unlikely to provide such a letter (Wong who did not respond to a request for comment).
Earlier this year, Wong had lobbied the city to remove the Coupa parklet, which Wong said takes up 70% of the frontage of her property at 532-536 Ramona St., which is next to the cafe.
"The parklet hides the frontage of the property and has made it impossible to attract prospective tenants for premises, which have been vacant since the pandemic," Wong wrote to the city in May.
Coupa's experience is hardly unique. A few blocks away on University Avenue, Sand Hill Property Company has requested that the city curtail the parklet that was installed by the restaurant Local Union 271. The parklet extends past the frontage of Restoration Hardware, a building that Sand Hill recently purchased. For Sand Hill and Restoration Hardware, that's a problem. Steve Rouman, senior vice president for real estate at Palo Alto Hardware, officially requested this week that the council remove the portion of the parklet that extends past the store.
The parklet, Rouman wrote, "clearly impacts RH's business as the parklet extends in front of the RH street side windows, restricting and blocking the view of the storefront, which displays furniture and other merchandise to customers." He also argued that the initial justification that was used to create parklets — to address the impacts of COVID-19, which makes it unsafe to eat indoors — no longer applies.
"Any prior permission granted by RH to erect the parklet was given under the clear premise that this was a temporary measure, designed to assist eating and drinking businesses such as cafes, restaurants, and retail food establishments through a crisis that no longer exists," Rouman wrote. "RH cooperated with the temporary parklet program and has been a good neighbor to the University Avenue community and consented to the temporary parklet program to assist its fellow commercial neighbors."
Jason Villarreal, chief operations officer and head of asset management at Sand Hill, similarly argued in a letter to the city that the parklet "reduces significant visibility of the store" and asked the council to require restaurants to "retract their outdoor dining space to the end of their building" and allow the parklet space near Restoration Hardware to revert to a parking space.
"I understand that during the pandemic outside dining and social distancing was very much needed; however, with the pandemic on the mend it doesn't seem needed as much as most people aren't wearing masks and have been fully vaccinated with boosters," Villarreal wrote.
Steve Sinchek, owner of Local Union 271, told the council that Restoration Hardware had always supported his restaurant's parklet. But after Sand Hill Properties bought the building, it began to express concerns that the parklet is "potentially blocking the storefront and limiting parking," Sinchek wrote to the council.
"The parking that we are taking up amounts to one additional space. Since the pandemic, Restoration Hardware has been extremely positive about the amount of foot traffic we have brought to University Avenue and their business," Sinchek wrote. "This foot traffic is far in excess to the single parking space that most likely would not be occupied by their customer."
In considering the new parklet policy, the council struggled to resolve two different and, at times, conflicting missions: ensuring that public outdoor spaces continue to contribute to civic life and respecting the desires of downtown property owners, including retailers who don't directly benefit from parklets.
Coupal lobbied the council not to require letters of consent from neighbors. Only the city, she argued, should decide on "consent" and parklet permits should be based on whether they fulfill the city's goal of making the public realm more vibrant.
"Contrary to what some landlords may say, parklets have definitely contributed to the livelihood and continued existence of restaurants, which are the primary businesses promoting Palo Alto as a destination for visitors," Coupal said.
But after much agonizing, the council opted to require neighbor consent. Under the proposal that the council adopted by a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Pat Burt and council members Greer Stone and Greg Tanaka dissenting, restaurants that don't have consent would have to remove parklets that extend past neighboring properties after June 2023.
Council member Eric Filseth called the neighbor-consent requirement a "squeamish issue" but suggested that requiring a consent letter is the "least evil" way of dealing with this dilemma.
"When you have your own property, you can do what you want on your own property, as long as it's within zoning code and you don't put an abattoir next to a nunnery or something like that," Filseth said. "Now, we're talking about implied rights of use on public property."
Burt also attempted to walk the fine line between asserting the city's rights over its public spaces and landowners' rights over their businesses.
"On the one hand, the city clearly owns the sidewalks and the streets. It's not the property of the tenant or the building owner," Burt said. "On the other hand, there are certain rights that are implicit and some gray areas there, in terms of not denying them the visibility or certain things that really impede their ability to do their business."
Ultimately, Burt and Filseth landed on opposite sides of the dilemma. Filseth supported a motion from council member Alison Cormack that, among other rules, requires neighbors' consent but gives parklet operators six months to comply with requests to remove the parklets. The new rule would kick in next year, which means existing parklets would be allowed to remain in place at least until the end of June.
The council also officially extended the interim parklet program, which was set to expire at the end of this year, until June 30. After that time, the plan is to replace it with a permanent ordinance that lays out rules for building and operating parklets.
The new regulations will likely entail a fee for restaurants that wish to build parklets. While the council did not specify the fee amounts this week, DuBois suggested setting them at about 70% of the estimated rental rates for city land. Under this scheme, a downtown restaurant would pay between $8,000 and $9,000 per year while a restaurant outside downtown would pay about $4,200 annually.
Even those who supported the requirement of a consent letter warned that the new rule could spur conflicts among businesses. DuBois called the issue of consent letters a "red herring" and suggested that there will be some situations in which there is no consent.
The city, he argued, should avoid creating a situation where there is "coercion between businesses in order to get their parklet approved." Rather than serve as an arbitrator, DuBois said, the city should assert its powers as a landlord and lease out spaces to businesses based on benefits to the wider community.
He also noted that even in a system where consent is required, disputes would still occur when properties turn over or tenants change their minds about space outside their storefronts.
"Ultimately, I think we're being a little naive and too simplistic to just say, 'You can lease in front of the other building if you have consent,'" DuBois said.
Cormack suggested that requiring neighbor consent but giving restaurants at least until June 2023 "gives people time to use what they've already invested in and resolves a problem that we're seeing pop up."
Burt proposed an alternative that would allow restaurants to put up parklets without roof coverings or obstructions above 38 inches in height in front of neighboring businesses, provided those businesses are not food and beverage establishments. While council member Greer Stone supported this approach, the rest of the council did not.
Burt highlighted the importance of dining in attracting people downtown, particularly at a time when there are fewer workers.
"This is a social transformation," Burt said. "People are out, using these spaces, valuing them as a really important part of their civic experience and their social life."
Tanaka also lauded the growth of outdoor dining and said he wants to see the city think bigger when it comes to enhancing its public spaces. The current parklet ecosystem is "haphazard," he said, and the council should work to make local dining areas more permanent and more reflective of the city's vision for outdoor dining.
"I realize we have the dream, and we have today. I'm just trying to think of how we bridge that?" Tanaka said.
But for restaurant owners like Coupal, the council's action on Monday was a step backward when it comes to outdoor dining. The requirement for neighbor consent would require her to remove about two-thirds of her parklet.
"How are they going to deal with unreasonable landlords or businesses that don't want to give consent but at the same time do not fulfill the objectives of a parklet?" Coupal asked after the meeting. "It's a big question that they didn't answer because they're so wishy-washy."