Ever since parklets became a fixture of Palo Alto's dining landscape nearly three years ago, city leaders and customers have credited them for adding much needed vitality to downtown areas and allowing restaurants to stay in business during a brutal economic period.
They have also, however, sparked tensions between neighboring businesses, uncertainty for property owners and confusion among city staff who have been struggling to determine whether they should be subject to building codes and what to do when tenants are tussling over oversized parklet turf. Now that they are no longer a pandemic lifeline but a permanent feature of local commercial districts, Palo Alto is one of many cities across the country struggling to determine what the new normal will look like for years to come.
The City Council took a stride toward figuring that out on Monday, when it backed a host of new rules and standards for parklets in an attempt to transform the haphazard system that exists today with something more stable, permanent and attractive. After a long debate and a sequence of split votes, council members agreed to limit parklets to 350 feet, introduce fees for restaurants renting public space for parklets and clarify that restaurants will not be able to build an enclosed structure that stretches beyond their storefront and into the neighboring area unless they get a letter of consent.
In doing so, however, council members struggled to resolve the competing interests between property owners, restaurants and one another. The biggest split came over maximum parklet size. City staff had initially proposed limiting spots to two parallel parking spaces (or three angled spaces) out of concern that larger structures would come with greater risks and require stricter adherence to building codes. The council ultimately voted 4-3, with Mayor Lydia Kou and council members Greg Tanaka and Vicki Veenker dissenting, to allow restaurants to place tables and chairs in front of neighboring properties provided the restaurant's enclosed parklet structure does not extend beyond its frontage.
And by a 5-2 vote, with Kou and Tanaka dissenting, council members backed a limit of 350 square feet for parklets. This includes an option for a restaurant in a corner location to build up to two separate structures — one on each side — as long as their total area does not go beyond the 350-square-foot limit.
Once adopted, the rules would apply to parklets in downtown and in portions of the California Avenue business district that are not closed off to cars. The city is now moving ahead with a separate effort to create a new vision for car-free California Avenue.
The argument over parklet sizes symbolized the broader debate over whether the city should prioritize vitality or predictability. Council member Pat Burt argued for a more permissive approach that gives restaurants more flexibility, including the ability to extend beyond their own storefronts if they get a neighbor's consent. Under his proposal, which squeaked through with a bare majority, restaurants would also be able to put up tables and chairs in front of the adjacent business, even without formal consent. The neighboring tenant would, however, have a chance to claim that space within 90 days.
Burt also made the case for keeping the fees for parklets relatively low so as not to deter restaurants from building parklets.
"Vitality breeds vitality in the downtown," Burt said. "We want to create a virtuous cycle not a downward cycle."
Some property owners wondered, however, if the latest revision to the parklet program will actually achieve this goal. Even as the city is dealing with parklets, it is eyeing a more ambitious effort to revamp and redesign downtown to make it more akin to popular promenades like State Street in Santa Barbara and Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado.
Critics noted that despite its name, the "permanent parklet program" is not in fact permanent but is an intermediary step between the improvised scene that popped up during the pandemic and the grand vision encompassed in a future plan. Brad Ehikian, partner at Premier Properties, a real estate firm that owns numerous commercial properties downtown, urged council members to focus on the broader effort.
"Don't get me wrong, I love outdoor seating," Ehikian said. "I'd like for it to be in plan for the future, but I want this done through a well thought-out design."
Guillaume Bienaimé, who owns the downtown restaurant Zola and who recently signed a lease to take over the former Old Pro restaurant on Ramona Street, called parklets "imperative for our success," particularly given the brutal business environment. He objected, however, to the city "moving the goal sticks" and coming up with new rules now, well before the master plan had been put together. He also suggested that the council focus on the broader plan for transforming the downtown area and making it more competitive with Stanford Shopping Center and other Peninsula downtowns with thriving outdoor dining scenes.
"My interest in Old Pro stemmed from the desire to honor the history of the city and create a space that would bring energy to a city that is at risk of decline," Bienaimé said. "I would hope it would be a shared vision for the council — being presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something truly special."
Roxy Rapp, who owns the Old Pro building as well as other Ramona Street properties, similarly urged council members to go bigger. He complained about the rugged nature of existing parklets and advocated for a more comprehensive plan.
"I'd love to see us spend the right money and make that street beautiful and show off the buildings," Rapp said of Ramona. "Right now, it's not doing it. We're destroying it and actually I think it's probably against the law what we're doing there right now."
Council member Greg Tanaka proved sympathetic and said it would make far more sense to focus on the permanent plan. By moving ahead with the new program, the council will be "leaving a lot of people in limbo."
"It's been two years since the pandemic but our downtown is really haphazard," Tanaka said. "It doesn't look the way we think Palo Alto should look like."
The council broadly agreed, however, that the new parklet rules can't wait. The master plan, according to staff, won't be completed for five to seven years. Council member Ed Lauing argued that that's too long a time to wait for improving the existing parklet system.
"I'm doubting that would get much support because of the issues of safety in the temporary parklets, the interests of other people wanting to do new parklets and the importance of visuals on the current set of parklets because they were put up pretty quickly under temporary regulations and some of them don't look too good," Lauing said.
But while council members generally agreed that something should be done, they squabbled over details such as parklet sizes. Veenker supported limiting parklets to the length of the proprietor's storefront as the best way to limit conflicts between neighbors. Otherwise, any arrangement between neighbors can be subject to complications, such as when a restaurant invests thousands of dollars for a parklet with a neighbor's consent and then loses that consent when a new tenant moves in. Veenker also noted that most other jurisdictions limit the size of the parklets in their downtown areas so that they won't extend past the neighboring building.
"We're increasing and decreasing the value of certain spaces and doing it in a way that doesn't strike me as fair," Veenker said.
Other areas proved less contentious. The council generally agreed to encourage electric heating over propane and voted 6-1, with Kou dissenting, to direct staff to develop standards that would incentivize such a switch. Restaurants relying on propane would be allowed to keep doing so provided they receive a hazardous materials permit.
By the same vote, the council directed staff to develop a license fee structure in the "low" end of the proposed spectrum, with each space renting for about 70% of the city's typical commercial rate. While the exact rates have yet to be developed, initial figures from the Department of Planning and Development Services indicate that the rates will fall in the $6,800 to $7,600 range, depending on the location. Concurrently, the council agreed not to charge a cleaning fee, a feature that was introduced in a prior staff proposal but ultimately withdrawn.
Some council members took issue with the objections coming from the property owners. Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims said she was concerned about a group of landlords "getting to dictate what we do on our public sidewalks." She was more sympathetic toward restaurant owners and said she supports allowing them to stretch out their outdoor spaces into spaces that neighbors aren't using.
"If they don't need it for their business, I like the idea of being able to expand an adjacent business that is a restaurant or similar type of provider into that space," Lythcott-Haims said.