• John Grossi

This Summer's "Patio Experience" and Its Long-Term Viability


In 2014, Jimmy and Nicky Loizides (brother and sister owners of George’s Greek Café) presented the idea of “parklet dining” to the Belmont Shore Business Association (BSBA). Having visited the Long Beach Parklet pilot program on 4th street, they were inspired by the idea of a communal, inviting, al fresco dining space with a vibrant European feel. The Loizides thought outside dining would be a perfect fit in Belmont Shore.


Having done their research, drawn up the architectural plan, and prepared their presentation, they made their pitch to the BSBA.


It was dead on arrival.


Almost no one liked the idea for 2nd street. They feared it would pose too big a risk. Parking, safety, traffic… all the standard reasons you can think of to stick with the status quo. There was no real support or hope so the Loizides family didn’t press anymore.


Fast forward to 2020 and the unforeseen dining shutdowns. Before she could even reimagine the parklet idea herself, Nicky got a call from Dede Rossi, the Executive Director of BSBA.


“Within hours we got this thing up. I am so grateful for Dede, [councilmember] Suzie Price and the Mayor [Robert Garcia],” Nicky says, referring to their help during this Pandemic.



“I can’t emphasize enough how much the city has done for us during these times,” says her brother Jimmy, “I’ve often been critical of the city and how it treats businesses. But not this time. You have to be fair and in this instance they’ve done a great job.”

George’s Greek Café parklet was the first to go up on 2nd street, but just about every restaurant in Belmont Shore and across Long Beach has followed suit. If it’s not a parklet, it’s sidewalk dining, parking lot dining, or even “in the street” dining through the City’s temporary “Open Streets” initiative (only a few select streets are permitted for street dining).


And people are loving it. No matter where you live in Long Beach, you don’t have to drive far to see a patron enjoying local food under an umbrella.


But this new normal begs the question that many in this city are asking. Why doesn’t Long Beach already have more outdoor dining? What can we do to make outdoor dining a long-term staple of Long Beach?


***


Nico’s in Naples is about as “indoor” an experience as you will find in Long Beach. An old-fashioned horseshoe bar centers the main floor of the small restaurant. It’s surrounded by booths with white tablecloths, dim lighting, and mood music. There is a hidden back lounge and an intimate upstairs dining room that lets customers escape from the modern world.



Or at least there was all of that -

Pre-COVID.

“I think right now that the future of the restaurant business is an open concept,” says Nico’s owner George Mlouk.

He is thinking of opening the front and side of his restaurant after this pandemic is over as a long-term business decision. In watching the clients who have supported him so loyally over the past two decades, he’s been noticing how much they enjoy the outdoor seating. They are enjoying the warm California weather even more than they loved the hushed darkened dining room.


“I don’t think that there is another option. This is just the beginning of how this business is changing…a lot of places are going to have to offer sidewalk dining, rooftop dining, or patios to survive.”


***


Mike Ellis, owner of Riley’s in Belmont Shore, has had a small patio for years. It’s part of what’s made his sports bar a town staple. Yet even Mike admits he’s surprised about how comfortable and beneficial the current parklet dining experience is. Ellis is one of many who are admitting their minds have changed since the idea was first proposed many years ago.


“The main thing I’ve learned about parklets is that they can be constructed in such a way that you don’t feel like you’re sitting in the street. I was a little leery when I saw a few being erected on 4th street a couple of years ago, but when I saw them from [our] sidewalk [this year] I was beyond impressed. They look like they belong there. I’m absolutely in favor of keeping them long term as long as public safety is taken into consideration.”


What Mike’s not surprised about is how popular they are. “It’s no secret that people like dining al fresco. Whether it’s a place overlooking the marina, like Schooner or Later (which has been wildly successful for years with almost no indoor seating), sitting on the rooftop deck at Ballast Point, or lounging on 2nd street doing some people watching, patios and outdoor dining areas always seem to be in high demand... Especially when the weather is nice.”


So the question remains…why aren’t there more opportunities to dine outside?



Mike Ellis’s guess is the simple fact that it takes money, and he seems to be right.


We usually hate to blame our forefathers for anything, but the biggest reason may be that Long Beach buildings just weren’t designed with the idea of outdoor dining in mind.


***



The city’s premiere rooftop dining is at Michael’s in Naples. General Manager (GM) Massimo Aronne agrees that cost and permitting both likely play a role in why there are not more such venues. He says when Michael’s renovated its rooftop, owner Michael swallowed the high costs and red tape as worth the investment. A stellar Al Fresco rooftop was always in the vision of Michael’s concept. Two key factors also played into his ability to make that vision come true. For one, the building already had a raw rooftop dining area built in (one of the few in the city). Secondly, Michael owned the building. The costs involved could be justified through the resultant increase in property value.



***


Arguably, one of the most popular restaurants in East Long Beach is the Boathouse on the Bay. Owner John Morris’s large “on the deck” patio has helped save his business during this pandemic. He has also benefited by the ubiquitous sidewalk permitting the city has granted, which allows him to put tables on the sidewalk overlooking Alamitos Bay. The gorgeous waterfront and sunset views from these new tables creates one of the most marvelous dining experiences in SoCal.



Morris is thrilled that his Pandemic-era guests are enjoying everything California has to offer. What upsets him, though, is that he submitted a plan to City Hall three years ago requesting to build extended patio seating in the very space where it is now allowed.


“I’m hoping that now, under the current climate and seeing how much some of the businesses are struggling, [the City] realizes that in order to increase the sales tax revenue they need to allow businesses to think outside of the box in order to survive and make a profit.”

So what is stopping his plan for the patio extension from being approved? According to Morris, just a lack of prioritization.


“As far as I know, [the plan] has never gotten past someone’s desk at City Hall. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve tried to push the button to move it ahead. It hasn’t even gotten to the Coastal Commission approval process.”


Morris and others we’ve talked to are financially willing and able to provide more waterfront dining if given approval. For now, they are excited to see how much people are enjoying the beautiful ocean views.


“Just look out here over that beautiful water. It’s just natural for people to want to take advantage of this,” says Morris.


***



While waterfront restaurateurs may have been fighting for more outdoor dining before the pandemic, there likely weren’t too many restaurant owners considering parking lot dining as an asset until now.


Joey Rooney, owner of The Crooked Duck, can’t believe how much his business rebounded (from the shutdown) once his parking lot setup came to life.


The Crooked Duck faces Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), and though his setup was pricy and took a lot of work to create, the payoff in visibility was well worth it.



Café Lorel also faces PCH, and owner Lorella DeLeon is over the moon about her parklet, paid for by the Long Beach Community Foundation, who she can’t thank enough. She had a few outdoor tables before the pandemic, but they weren’t big enough to create visibility. Now with the parklet she shares with DiPiazza and El Burrito Grill, their tables and umbrellas are seen by thousands each day. While DeLeon doubts the city will allow this to become permanent, she would do whatever it takes to make it so.


***


So what needs to happen to make these awesome, fun, interactive outdoor setups a

permanent part of Long Beach’s framework?


Sidewalk and parking lot permitting is approved through the Long Beach Special Events and Filming office. The manager of that department Tasha Day released this statement:


“Right now all permits are scheduled to run through 10/31 or a change in the health order whichever is first. The City will continue to reevaluate the program as health guidance changes.”


Councilman Daryl Supernaw, who represents the Fourth District, says there will definitely be a difference in the permitting process once the health restrictions are lifted.



“City staff implemented the current program without Council direction,” he explains. “To make it a ‘long term’ solution, Council approval would be needed. Currently restaurants need approval from the City’s Public Works and/or Special Event Departments. Additionally, they would need approval from ABC if their establishment sells alcohol. Making parklets a long-term goal could mean additional approvals from the Planning Commission, Building/Safety Department and City Council.”


Compared to the ease in permitting the pandemic-era parklets that the restaurateurs just experienced, i.e., where the City literally sought them out and all but handed them permission to implement outdoor dining, the regular process involves a lot of hoops to jump. But if you consider that, back before the pandemic, outdoor dining was, to say the least, not a priority for the city, at least now the conversation is happening.


Supernaw says he is a proponent of supporting his 4th district restaurants to be creative with their outdoor dining as time goes on. “I have supported these innovations to keep the restaurants open from the beginning. I will continue my support on a long-term basis as long as we can address any concerns over parking impacts. The potential for concerns with various types of businesses operating next to each other (e.g., hair salons next to restaurants) would also need to be monitored.”



Both Supernaw and Richie Brand, a board member on the Los Altos Village Neighbors, made a note that they have not heard any negative rumblings about the outdoor dining in the 4th district as of yet.


“Everything I’ve heard has been pretty positive,” says Richie Brand. “I think some of the spaces might be more refined if this was long term- I know it was sort of thrown together— but all the neighbors I talk to are all for it… it’s awesome to be able to eat outside.”


Public approval will likely be a bit of a different story in Belmont Shore where parking is more of a hot button issue.


Julie Dean lives just six houses off 2nd street. She is definitely concerned about the parking impact that long-term parklet operations would pose. She cites the mission of the

mayor-appointed Parking Commission to increase parking capacity in Belmont Shore.


“Everyone I have talked to is positive about the parklets during the pandemic. But it has always been presented as a temporary solution. If parklets stay beyond the pandemic, the restaurants will have increased their dining capacity, but not increased their parking capacity…and in fact decreased their parking capacity,” says Dean.

Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price understands the concerns of Julie Dean and other affected residents if permanent parklets move forward. For the moment, however, she is positive there can be a solution that makes both residents and businesses happy.


When asked if she supports making outdoor dining parklets and makeshift patios long-term in Belmont Shore and Naples, Price’s answer was “absolutely.”



“I love the look of the street with the string accent lights and the general vibe of the corridor. My family and I frequent the restaurants at least once or twice a week for our family dinner. I really applaud our City staff for getting this program up and running as fast as they have to give restaurants a chance to survive. It is no small task to create a new program in as short a time as has been done, especially when it involves as many departments as it does. Obviously, we are in unique times where creative solutions like this can be quickly implemented as stop gap measures. Once we reach some normalcy in the future where this emergency has stabilized, I look forward to outdoor dining continuing, and the City allowing for these programs to be expanded where there is not a negative impact to safety, traffic, or parking.” 

***


Safety, traffic, and parking. Those were the concerns that shot down the vision at George’s Greek Café years ago. Yet, now, they seem more like road bumps than roadblocks. Especially if the city decides the benefits outweigh the concerns.



Arguably the most iconic parklet in the city is at Lola’s Mexican Cuisine on 4th street.


It was the first parklet built in Long Beach and a flagship design for the new wave of Southern California street dining. Long Beach is proud of its work at Lola’s and it was the first of multiple projects that revitalized 4th street. But it wasn’t the idea of owner Luis Navarro to even design a parklet.


Instead it was his idea to move away from 4th street to find a place he could accommodate more dining to stay afloat. It was the city that approached him about trying this crazy new idea they had of parklet dining.


“It was a city forward idea where they wanted to start turning public dead space into socially usable space,” says Navarro.

He admits it’s unfortunate the way things usually work. If he had approached the city with the idea back then, he believes it would have been shot down immediately. But (thankfully) that’s not the way it happened.


It was a combination of the right people in City Hall at the perfect time. Coming out of the recession there was a focus on revitalizing the city.


“At the time there was this incredibly progressive group of minds in City Hall… Sue Castillo, Charlie Gandy, and more, and they wanted to help us.”


They were also toward the end of their careers – which, Luis says, made them “willing to take a few risks.”


Lola’s was the first of three “Pilot Program” parklets that included Number Nine Pho and Berlin Bistro. All on 4th Street. A lot of thought, money, time, and study went into those three main areas of concern: Parking, safety, traffic.


They found ways to gain the two parking spots that are taken up by a parklet by shortening bus stops and loading zones. Partnering with Studio One Eleven, who built the parklets, they invested in a sustainable, pleasant, yet extremely safe and sturdy design. One that a stray, or out-of-control car bounces right off.


“Unfortunately, we know for a fact that they are safe,” Luis says, referring to a scary incident a few years ago when a car ran into the parklet and bounced right off. “It was definitely not something you ever want to see, but we learned that these parklets are safe for sure.”


According to Luis Navarro, the official “Long Beach Parklet Pilot Program” Study, which is available to the public online, concluded there were minimal negative effects to parking and traffic but instead, a totally revitalized community on 4th street. People walking around, foot traffic, dining, “The 4th street we have today is not how it was in 2012,” says Navarro.


In fact, for a few years after the parklets were created, the City of Long Beach would routinely bring in college students from a handful of local universities who were majoring in city planning, traffic engineering, and the like, to learn from the success of Lola’s. The lesson being that - despite the perennial concerns about traffic, parking, and safety - it is important for city planners to keep an open mind and try things out. Sometimes the risks of a forward-thinking endeavor don’t come to fruition whereas the rewards do.


Navarro knows there will always be pushback anytime something new happens. He has faced the same pushback at his Bixby Knolls location with a community that was less willing to change. Though Navarro loves outdoor dining, he gave up hope of ever doing a parklet in Bixby Knolls with the lack of community support.


But now here we are in 2020 and the entire city is bustling with parklets. The silver lining of this pandemic for Navarro is that the success of his temporary parklet in Bixby Knolls has swayed public support so he is now building a permanent facility.


Fortunately for Navarro, he has worked with the city before and knows exactly what needs to get done in order to build. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is at a loss.


Thanks to the Pilot Parklet Program, Long Beach City Public Works Department has a procedure for permitting a permanent parklet that was put in place long before the pandemic.



Diko Melkonian is the Deputy Director of Public Works. He’s been enjoying the parklets during the pandemic with his immediate family and has heard a lot of positive feedback.


“We think that so far it has been overwhelmingly appreciated by the businesses and the public. It allows businesses to increase their occupancy during this time when we’re trying to social distance. We have not seen negative traffic effects to my knowledge. They do take up some parking spaces but we’ve had very minimal complaints in light of that,” says Melkonian.


He says post-pandemic, just like pre-pandemic, there is opportunity for more parklets to be built in Long Beach.


“Permanent parklets were already an opportunity for businesses. Restaurants that want to make their temporary parklets permanent would just follow the original procedure. Receiving approval through the traffic engineering office where they’d evaluate it and determine if it was appropriate.”

We asked Melkonian’s office a few follow-up questions to see how easy or hard it really is to get a parklet in Long Beach:


Q: How many businesses have applied since the program was created? 

A: To date, 124 businesses have applied; 108 businesses have received parklets; 11 applications pending; 5 applications denied.

 

Q: How many have been turned down and what were the reasons?

A: Five businesses were denied parklets. Two were bars that were denied per health order restrictions and three were denied due to location safety concerns (i.e., roadway speed, size, volume).

 

Q: Is there an ongoing rental fee associated with permanent parklets or is a one-time fee?  What are the costs? 

A: Parklet permits are for a 1-year period and can be renewed on an annual basis. The fee adjusts annually in conjunction with the latest fee schedule. Currently the annual fee is approximately $1,100.

 

Q: Are there any streets in Long Beach that are definitely a NO-GO for parklets due to traffic?

A: In general the parklets must comply with our guidelines (available at lb908.com). No-go streets for permanent parklets include any street with a speed limit over 25 MPH.


***

As you might expect, the city’s brochure boasts about their willingness to work with business owners to make outdoor dining a reality. Most business owners we talked to feel that it’s quite the opposite. We’ll assume the reality lies somewhere in between. Luis Navarro of Lola’s says the great group of minds that made the parklets possible in the first place are no longer at City Hall. He says those who have taken their place are great people and very nice but don’t understand all the work and thought that went into that study in the first place. They are also younger and (understandably) less willing to take risks for fear of something going wrong.


One person who is still around, and for that matter, was a very integral part of the Parklet Pilot Program, is Michael Bohn, Principal Partner at Studio One Eleven.



Studio One Eleven built the parklets for the pilot program and a majority of the ensuing parklets in Long Beach and Southern California.


Bohn knows the ins and outs of the process, and Studio One Eleven is a renowned firm region-wide for its success is working with public and private entities to revitalize cities, making them equitable, sustainable, vibrant, and inclusive. Notable works in Long Beach include the airport concessions and the Lakewood Family YMCA.


Bohn lives within walking distance of 2nd Street and is a big supporter of building parklets on that street, which he thinks could be done through a trial process to mitigate concerns about traffic and parking. Start with maybe four in Naples and six in Belmont Shore, slowly increasing the number every few years if there isn’t a negative impact.


“I’m a firm believer that parking kind of works itself out,” he says.  “Not to drastic means but you let the market work that out through rideshare, biking and walking as other means to reduce parking demand.  If you take into account all the new parklets on 2nd street now, I can still find a parking spot when I go to a store.  It hasn’t made it so inconvenient that it would discourage people from going down there.”

Studio One Eleven has put a lot of money and time into working with cities in mitigating every possible concern that residents might have, from safety to water flow. In Bohn’s mind, the benefits in some areas (definitely not all) outweigh the concerns. The businesses he works with invest roughly $20,000-$30,000 to put in a permanent parklet, a project that has been done correctly, is safe, and adds charm and value to the neighborhood. In other words, these parklets become a true community asset.


“Look, people are drawn by other people. When you see people dining outside, you think that restaurant is doing well, and people want to eat there.  A lot of restaurant owners say that parklets are a better fixture than any sign.”


He says that it depends on the neighborhood, but Belmont Shore is the type of place where a parklet could thrive. It’s not the type of place that realistically you’re ever going to be able to park directly in front of the shop you are going to. It’s a place to commune, stroll, and feel community.


***



Matt Peterson is a Mayor-appointed commissioner serving on the Belmont Shore Parking Commission. He is also one of the owners of Legends and serves on the board of the Belmont Shore Business Association.   He strongly believes these temporary parklets during 2020 are the best thing to happen to 2nd Street in a long time.

 

Peterson is seeing the beginning of a revitalized Belmont Shore, whereas before the parklets, it was becoming the subject of  many conversations relative to increased vacancies and decreased revenues among business owners.

 

“When you look at the potential negatives for Belmont Shore parklets there are two. Lost revenue from meters and the potential liability from a public safety perspective.  I don’t think there are any analytics to support these parklets endangering public safety.


“The Parking Commission has sponsored a pilot program for private security to augment police patrols of the neighborhood. Part of their daily duties is to admonish bike and skateboard riding on the sidewalks, to further the safety of diners and pedestrians.”

 

Being a fan of the Open Streets Initiative from the beginning, Peterson believes the Mayor and The City got this one right.


“The hope is, the common sense approach continues past the pandemic crisis and ends up being a true positive in an otherwise dismal situation.”

 

“People like having a variety of great places to choose from, not just one.  That’s the charm of 2nd Street.  Right now people are saying, ‘Let’s go to Belmont Shore’ instead of ‘Let’s go to Huntington Beach’ or anything like that.  It’s not just one place, it’s a destination full of places.”

 

Peterson and others in the business community keep paraphrasing this one sentence over and again. “It’s amazing what the city can do when they want to.”

 

They are hoping this can lead to a better climate for restaurants and small businesses to thrive in.

 

“My biggest take away is that the city of Long Beach met a really difficult situation and passed an initiative that has been so user friendly, and business friendly, it’s been extremely successful.  I guess the thought then is, ‘Why can’t it be all the time? Residents and operators largely seem to agree.”

George Mlouk, owner of Nico’s in Naples, has been overly impressed with the vibe, intrigue, and excitement created by these parklets in Naples. He strongly believes the city should continue to support these as a way to help mom and pop businesses compete in an increasingly tougher business climate.


“Naples is the entrance to our city. These parklets set the tone for everyone who drives in to Long Beach that this is a place to be.”


The president of the Naples Improvement Association is lifelong resident Mike O’Toole. He also owns the popular Alamitos Bay attraction Gondola Getaway. He thinks a majority of Naples has really enjoyed the parklet experience.



“I think that everybody right now is in love with it. It has been amazing. Having that right in your backyard, being able to walk to dining on a main street like that.” He readily admits how much he’s personally enjoyed it.


Speaking on behalf of the residents’ association, he also admits that there will have to be a conversation, with both sides heard, and issues addressed. You guessed the issues: safety, traffic, and parking.


Still, after seeing this year’s success with parklets, O’Toole ventures that perhaps some of those concerns aren’t as dire as they are often portrayed. The biggest issue would be parking for people who live right off of 2nd street. The dining experience is great for everyone who isn’t affected but we have to be mindful of those who are.


“The beauty of this thing is that it turned into the ultimate pilot program and it’s changing a lot of people’s viewpoints. I mean, you could never ask for something like this to happen without this pandemic. The city would never ever say, ‘Ok, this summer we’re going to do a trial of parklets everywhere,’” he laughs. “It’s really been a bitchin’ test program and shown a lot of us the potential.”

Mike is also sure the emergency permitting will go away at some point and then parklet dining will need to be reconsidered. He thinks the main issue will be parking, and whether or not the people closest to the parklets will fight adamantly against them.


***


Jimmy and Nicky Loizides, owners of George’s Greek Café, say that, while they’ve always dreamt of having a permanent parklet on 2nd Street, it hasn’t been something they’re adamantly pushing for right at this moment.


“To be honest, right now it is such a surreal time to own a business, we are kind of putting future plans aside and just managing our restaurant in the present.” They’ve never seen anything like this and have to do everything they can during this pandemic to remain afloat.


But that doesn’t mean the time for reapplying for their permanent parklet won’t come. They’ve already spent the money for plans, did their research, and put in the time six years ago. They went through Michael Bohn’s Studio One Eleven, just like all the other parklets that have been approved in Long Beach. They weren’t necessarily waiting for a shift in public opinion but it seems like maybe this year they’ve gotten one.


At some point in the near future…maybe days, months, or even a year… the health orders will be changed, the temporary parklets will go down, and assuming COVID-19 is under control, society will emit a big sigh of relief. But nowhere in Long Beach will look, feel, and act the exact same way it did before COVID-19.


In Belmont Shore, Jimmy and Nicky Loizides will attend a business association meeting and give the same presentation they gave six years ago. We don’t know exactly what will happen but we know that this time, the idea of a parklet won’t fall on deaf ears.



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