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La Jolla Shores Association says outdoor dining plan is dead because of parking enforcement cost

Patio dining and tables along the sidewalk are pictured in 2016 at Osteria Romantica on Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla.
(Daniel K. Lew)

With no resolution to a last-minute, expensive roadblock, the La Jolla Shores Association says it can’t proceed with its proposed outdoor dining on Avenida de la Playa.

“It’s really a slap in the face to any small community trying to help its mom-and-pop businesses,” LJSA President Janie Emerson said July 2.

The plan was intended for restaurants to be able to serve more customers while observing social distancing guidelines related to the coronavirus pandemic.

After more than two months of preparation to obtain permits and complete paperwork on behalf of restaurants, LJSA said it received a letter from the city of San Diego saying the association would need to pay for any ticketing and towing of cars each day before setting up tables for outdoor dining on Avenida de la Playa between El Paseo Grande and Calle de la Plata.

The one block would be closed from 10:30 a.m. to midnight Thursdays through Sundays, with dining furniture set up every morning and cleared after service ended at 10 p.m.

LJSA has been working with the city’s Special Events & Filming Department, following an “existing process” to permit the closure of Avenida de la Playa, according to city spokeswoman Nicole Darling.

Following the department’s notification regarding the ticketing and towing fees — which LJSA board member Phil Wise estimated would run nearly $17,000 — Wise asked representatives of the department and City Council member Barbara Bry’s District 1 office for a workaround.

Wise said special-events directors called the $17,000 estimate a worst-case scenario and said that after a few days of towing, police probably wouldn’t have to be called because people would stop parking there, though no guarantees could be made.

“We can’t agree to [the worst-case scenario],” Wise said.

“Had we known this expense from the get-go, we would have stopped our efforts at that time,” Wise said in an email to the special-events directors.

Stopping the project now means a financial loss for the restaurants, many of which have already purchased additional liability insurance for the street space they would occupy, Wise said.

“This is an expense that will be hard to recover,” he said. “Additionally, some of the restaurants have ordered additional tables, chairs and umbrellas that they hoped to place onto the street. They made these financial commitments not knowing they’d be blindsided with an unknown policing financial liability.”

Wise sent Special Events another email, proposing that the department “allow the restaurants to place their dining items onto the street for five consecutive days,” Wednesdays through Sundays. The suggestion included having a police officer “on hand to ticket and have towed any illegally parked vehicle,” with the idea that “once the public becomes aware that their vehicles would be towed it’s assumed the parking problem would diminish and the restaurants would appoint a representative to monitor the street and call the special police line if there was a parking violation, to have that vehicle ticketed and towed.”

Wise said he was told the department has “certain parameters, and they cannot make any changes.”

“Special Events has a one-size-fits-all program,” he said. “It works for Little Italy and Gaslamp [two San Diego neighborhoods where outdoor dining has been approved] because Little Italy and Gaslamp are BIDs — business improvement districts. They have money.”

Businesses in BIDs pay annual membership fees used to fund activities and improvements in their areas. As LJSA is not a BID, “it makes a difference,” Emerson said. “We aren’t all the same to begin with.”

Darling said “all terms and conditions of street closures apply to all applicants, whether they are a BID or not.”

In an additional hurdle, an expected July 7 vote by the City Council to waive hundreds of dollars in fees has been pushed back to at least July 14. The fees are related to a city regulation that charges $150 for special-events applications within 60 days of an event, plus $10 per day for up to 60 days past the application.

Steve Hadley, representing Bry’s office, sent an email to Conrad Wear in Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office, asking that the police “towing supervision agreement be amended to cap the potential fee charged at a much lower amount.”

Hadley also requested that “the waiver of special-event permitting fees still be added to next week’s City Council docket as a supplemental item. … The restaurants in [The] Village as well as in The Shores are waiting for this action to move forward with their street dining plans and permitting.”

As of the evening of July 2, there had been no response to the email, and Wear did not respond to inquiries from the Light.

Emerson said the apparent collapse of the outdoor dining proposal is even more concerning given that increasing coronavirus cases could bring significantly more restrictive operating requirements to a variety of San Diego County businesses as soon as July 6.

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week ordered 19 counties to immediately cease all indoor activities for three weeks at locations including restaurants, movie theaters, zoos, museums, card rooms, wineries and tasting rooms. San Diego County was not on that list.

To end up on the list, a county must cross one or more of six different state early-warning thresholds designed to flag places where the coronavirus appears to be moving from person to person at an increasing rate. The six red flags measure the average number of tests performed, the number of cases per capita, the percentage of tests coming pack positive, increases in COVID-19 hospitalization, intensive care unit bed occupancy and mechanical ventilator availability.

San Diego County set the state’s per-capita warning bell ringing June 30 when the region had more than 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents as measured over a rolling 14-day period. The county has joined the governor’s watch list, but that isn’t enough to trigger the restrictions and force restaurants to serve diners outside only.

Once on the list, the average must remain elevated for an additional three consecutive days before a county is forced to comply. County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said compliance likely would be required, if the numbers don’t change, just as the Fourth of July weekend ends.

“On July 6, we would be forced to take the enforcement action, which means three weeks’ pause on indoor activities for the entities mentioned in the governor’s orders,” Fletcher said.

“For restaurants who don’t have outdoor dining, they’re essentially closed,” Emerson said.

The potential shutdown comes after all restaurants, along with bars that serve food, were ordered to stop admitting newly arriving customers by 10 p.m. effective July 1. Bars that don’t serve food were told to close.

Wise said he is worried for the restaurants’ survival. “They are all struggling, and assuming indoor dining is the next ban, these restaurants will suffer more,” he said.

Wise hopes the restaurants will now consider parklets through the city’s Development Services Department. Parklets are a system in which a structure erected over parking spaces would allow businesses to station seating for up to 45 days.

In an email update to the restaurants involved, Wise said: “La Jolla Shores Association cannot assist you in applying for a parklet; each of you must do this on your own. The use of a parklet eliminates the need for a patrol person to show up to check for illegally parked cars, as your street dining items will be on the street on top of the parklet for a fixed 45-day period.”

Wise said he was aware that one restaurant, Piatti, had already applied for a parklet. The Light reached out to Piatti for comment but did not receive an immediate response.

The San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.