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 -
“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.