La Jolla restaurants ‘thrilled’ after San Diego approves one-year extension for outdoor dining

Beaumont's in Bird Rock established an outdoor dining option during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outdoor dining patios, corrals and parklets that have become familiar sights in La Jolla will be allowed to remain until summer next year following a May 18 vote by the San Diego City Council.

The council unanimously approved a one-year extension of interim urgency regulations to allow the city’s Temporary Outdoor Business Operation permit program to continue until July 13, 2022.

The approval extends the expiration date for all permitted outdoor operations and allows restaurants and other businesses to continue outdoor operations at their discretion, even if COVID-19 health orders are rescinded.

The interim rules offered a streamlined permitting process that allowed businesses to move their operations onto sidewalks and parking lanes along streets and, in some cases, build elevated platforms or decking for seating. Others expanded onto private parking lots, which did not require a special permit.

To date, the city’s Development Services Department said it has received 544 applications for temporary outdoor business operations, and of those, 427 have been approved. The difference, staff members said, largely accounts for businesses that unnecessarily applied for a permit in a private parking lot.

La Jolla business response

Businesses that benefit from the outdoor options say they’ll take all the time they can get.

Eric Adler, co-owner of Puesto La Jolla on Wall Street, said, “Guests greatly enjoy dining on patios throughout San Diego, and it is important to provide this option for so many San Diegans that feel more comfortable outside.”

Separate from the one-year extension, Puesto has asked the city for a five-year permit to create a “placemaking pedestrian plaza” to continue use of nine adjacent street parking spaces for outdoor dining. Puesto currently has a dining structure built over the parking places fronting the restaurant. Its request has triggered opposition from residents concerned about the long-term loss of parking and extended commercial use of the public right of way, which was allowed last year as a temporary measure to help businesses weather the pandemic.

As the La Jolla community continues to weigh in on Puesto’s proposal to extend the use of adjacent parking spaces on Wall Street for outdoor dining for up to five years, the restaurant’s management would like its turn.

If the five-year permit is granted, Puesto’s structure would be modified to include Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant access and additional access for emergency personnel. It also would be available to the general public, not just Puesto customers.

Megan Heine, co-owner of the Brockton Villa and Beaumont’s restaurants, said she was “thrilled” that “we could continue to operate in some capacity, keep our staff in the workforce and offer our loyal guests an option to dine out in a safe and fun environment. San Diego is the perfect and natural location for tons of outdoor dining, and it’s wonderful to know that the powers that be have recognized, even embraced this!”

Nancy Chaconas of Spiro’s Mediterranean Cuisine in The Village also supported the extension of outdoor dining. “With all the back and forth on openings and closings [during the pandemic], the opportunity to have outdoor dining helped us to maintain a semblance of operations,” she said. “We are very pleased that it will continue and look forward to a successful summer season and beyond. And we are incredibly grateful for the community’s support.”

Jodi Rudick, executive director of the La Jolla Village Merchants Association, said the extension is “welcome news for our businesses to give them additional time to recover from a devastating year-plus. While June 15 is the date the state and most are using as the ‘end of the COVID restrictions,’ we know that we are not out of coronavirus woods yet, as has been made evident by surges around the globe. Outdoor gathering is far safer than indoor crowds, so we continue to applaud businesses willing to adapt to outdoor service.”

La Jolla Shores Association board member Phil Wise, who facilitated the inception and continuation of an outdoor dining program in The Shores that has closed one block of Avenida de la Playa to vehicle traffic so restaurants could place tables on the street, said news of the extension is “wonderful. I couldn’t believe it.”

The Shores’ outdoor dining permit, given through the city’s Special Events & Filming Department since it involved a street closure, was set to expire Dec. 30, or whenever COVID-related restrictions are lifted.

But Wise said Special Events personnel told him to reapply electronically in December and the permit would be automatically extended to July 13, 2022.

“The people that work for the city really put their heart into it,” Wise said. “They’re very, very helpful.”

He said merchants on Avenida de la Playa are pursuing a permanent street closure, which would not be under the auspices of the La Jolla Shores Association. He said they are looking into reactivating a merchants association and appointing a liaison to organize the effort.

Stepped-up enforcement

Though city officials say the nearly year-long experiment in al fresco dining has proved enormously popular with both the public and business owners, enforcement of the interim regulations has been spotty.

As a result, the city will be stepping up enforcement of fire, building and municipal codes and has set a July 13 deadline for compliance. After that, non-compliant businesses could face revocation of their permits.

“As the [COVID-19] emergency apparently subsides and indoor dining, shopping and services return to full occupancy, the question is how we should deal with the outdoor options that were allowed,” said City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla.

“We’ve seen structures block bicycle lanes, sidewalks that are much too narrow, encroachment in the path of travel, installations that block private businesses and much more.”

City Development Services Director Elyse Lowe said code enforcement has received “a number of complaints” about violating temporary outdoor operations, such as unpermitted overhead structures, enterprises going beyond the scope of their permit and structures blocking red emergency access curbs. “We will seek corrections to those [by July 13], and if uncorrected, we would not renew their permit,” she said.

City spokesman Scott Robinson said no code enforcement complaints have been filed against Puesto’s structure.

Due to the emergency nature of the original ordinance, the City Council needed eight votes to grant the extension, and only eight members were present at the May 18 meeting. After council President Jennifer Campbell called for the vote, LaCava said, “I don’t like the process and the action today. However, this takes eight votes and there are eight of us here, so I’m not going to stand in the way and will vote for the resolution.”

He later clarified to the La Jolla Light that he didn’t like that the item went before the council without a lot of notice or schematics as to how it would be worked out in the coming year.

“I wanted businesses to have a date certain as to when temporary measures would change; they deserve no less,” he said. “I was concerned, while everyone seemed to be very excited about this during the pandemic and willing to make concessions … that as we come out of it and return to the new normal, that we need to be careful with some of the concessions and allowing private business in public streets.

“I thought we needed to take a moment to digest the issues, and we were not afforded that option. We needed to move fast on this, but I am heartened to hear [Development Services] will be assertive in terms of code enforcement. We have totally ignored that during the pandemic, but a lot of business owners are going to have to remove or change the outdoor spaces they have created. It is unclear how quickly they will act on that. What we don’t want to do is disadvantage those that follow the rules. So the city should be offering clear-cut guidelines. I don’t think we got that.”

He also said a six-month extension, instead of a year, might have been more “reasonable.”

The future of outdoor service

In addition to the one-year extension of the outdoor dining ordinance, the council was introduced to a proposal to create a mechanism that would allow some businesses to operate outdoors permanently.

Dubbed the “Spaces as Places” program, the proposal will enter the community outreach phase in June, with review by City Council boards and committees in July and planned adoption in the fall.

“The overall purpose of the program is to transition activities, such as outdoor dining, from an emergency response to COVID into a permanent part of the city’s toolbox for activating the pedestrian environment and local economy,” said Planning Department program manager Brian Schoenfisch. “The program will offer a menu-of-options approach for a variety of outdoor dining options, including wooden platforms, permanent curb extensions and promenades.”

The program also would include recreational amenities, art and educational and cultural exhibits to “create a community gathering space in the public right of way,” Schoenfisch said.

A page on the Planning Department website has been dedicated to the proposal:

— La Jolla Light staff writer Elisabeth Frausto and San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Lori Weisberg contributed to this report.