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Some La Jolla restaurants struggle to transition to ‘Spaces as Places’ as they wait for Coastal Commission

Many restaurants along Avenida de la Playa must adjust their outdoor dining spaces according to their new outdoor permit.
Many restaurants along Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla Shores must adjust their outdoor dining spaces according to their new outdoor permit.
(Phil Wise)

Nearly a week after the July 13 expiration of temporary outdoor business operations permits in San Diego, some La Jolla establishments are scrambling to adjust to the city’s new outdoor dining initiative while others appear to be waiting for further direction.

The city established the temporary outdoor operations permits, called TOBOs, under an emergency measure during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow restaurants and other businesses to use parking spaces on city streets and other outdoor public areas to help keep them operating and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The popularity and success of such installations led the City Council in October to approve “Spaces as Places,” an initiative to transition temporary eating and drinking spaces to permanent. Businesses must comply with new regulations to be granted a permit under Spaces as Places. The city began accepting permit applications in January in preparation for the July 13 expiration of the TOBOs.

Businesses that don’t apply for or are denied permits under the new regulations are supposed to take down their outdoor installations.

However, in coastal areas such as La Jolla, Spaces as Places can’t take effect until it is reviewed and certified by the California Coastal Commission because the ordinance requires a change to Local Coastal Programs, which serve as planning documents for coastal communities. That review has not yet been scheduled. The commission’s next meeting is set for Aug. 10-12.

Only a “very tiny percentage” of businesses citywide had applied for permits under Spaces as Places as of July 13, City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said at the La Jolla Village Merchants Association meeting last week.

In La Jolla, the percentage is smaller still, given the wait for Coastal Commission approval.

“The wrinkle that has caused a lot of confusion” is that the ordinance is not legally in effect in La Jolla until the Coastal Commission signs off, LaCava said. “So we are in this waiting game. Even though we are asking for the restaurants to apply for the [Spaces as Places] permit, we can’t actually approve it because we don’t have the sign-off from the Coastal Commission.”

Chris Larson, program coordinator for the city Development Services Department, told the La Jolla Light last month that establishments with a temporary permit and an application on file for a permanent permit would not be penalized after July 13, pending review of their application.

The city produces an interactive map with all the businesses that have applied for the permit and gotten far enough in the process for it to register. However, city spokesman Anthony Santacroce said this week that “there is a lag time between submitting the application, confirming that it is a Spaces and Places permit application and also confirming that the application has been submitted correctly.”

As of early this week, only one business in La Jolla’s Village had applied for the permit, according to the list: Bernini’s Bistro on Fay Avenue. To do so, management sought outside help.

“It was way over our heads,” said Bernini’s co-owner Reyhan Gumustekin. “It was too complicated. We’re applying for permits with certain terms I didn’t understand, so we hired an architecture firm to help. We feel blessed to be in a financial position to do that; I don’t know how smaller restaurants are going to get through it.”

Gumustekin added that she thinks the Spaces as Places program is “great” and that she is grateful the city is providing a way for restaurants to transition their temporary spaces to permanent.

Ronald Famorcan of RF Famorcan and Associates, the firm that helped Gumustekin, said the permit application was still being processed and that they were awaiting “clear direction” from the Coastal Commission.

It wasn’t clear whether other restaurants using parking spaces in The Village, like Puesto on Wall Street, have applied for Spaces as Places permits. Representatives of Puesto declined to comment.

Regarding enforcement in coming months, Santacroce said “it is important to understand that the city has been in constant communication with [TOBO] businesses in anticipation of and during this transition. They are well aware of the rules and their responsibilities.”

According to the city, the code enforcement division will investigate complaints from the public about an outdoor operation. If an inspector finds a violation of the guidelines or other codes, the owner will be responsible for resolving the issue and paying any enforcement‐related penalties.

La Jolla Shores

In La Jolla Shores, which has had a closure of one block of Avenida de la Playa for outdoor dining on the street since July 2020, restaurant owners scrambled to adjust their outdoor spaces according to three permits they’ve applied for in the past few weeks.

Because The Shores dining program involves a street closure, organizers have been involved in frenetic communication with city officials, often running into confusion about which permits are needed.

“It’s been a challenge,” La Jolla Shores Association board member Phil Wise said at the group’s meeting July 13.

Wise, who has shepherded the dining program on Avenida de la Playa since its inception, said the city first had him apply for a TOBO permit, despite its July 13 expiration date, and a Spaces as Places permit.

A TOBO permit requires that restaurateurs make room for two-way vehicle traffic round the clock, Wise said, which would cause a large reduction in space for restaurants on the street and would be detrimental to the purpose of the program.

To circumvent the TOBO, officials at the city’s Special Events & Filming Department encouraged Wise to apply for a third city permit to establish an “activation,” which allows a street closure for a large-scale art exhibit outside a commercial endeavor.

Wise has worked with local artists to install large sculptures at the east end of Avenida de la Playa to fulfill the activation requirements.

The approved Special Events & Filming activation permit is good through December and will allow the street to be closed to vehicle traffic from 8:15 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, Wise said.

However, the permit requires a change to two-way traffic after 11 p.m., so restaurants have been busy narrowing their outdoor dining spaces to accommodate nighttime vehicles.

Venues on the south side of Avenida de la Playa, which include Osteria Romantica, Sushi Mori, Barbarella and more, “have to move their spaces back toward the curb and they cannot extend more than six feet from the curb into the street,” Wise said.

Those restaurants have lost 58 percent or more of their dining space, he said.

Restaurants in La Jolla Shores work July 18 to reduce their street dining space to comply with new requirements.
(Phil Wise)

Shore Rider and others on the north side will not have to make changes, but Piatti, also on the north side, will have to change much of its arrangement.

Wise said he’s baffled by the amount of work it has taken to apply, saying there’s been “nothing but tremendous support” for the outdoor dining program from community members.

The process has proved to be a “considerable expense” for the restaurants given that the Coastal Commission hasn’t even approved Spaces as Places for the coastal zone yet, Wise said, and with the mandated reduction in dining space, “the city is requesting these businesses to spend money to make less money.”

“Now all we need is the Coastal Commission to understand that closing the street does not prevent people from getting to the boat ramp, it does not prevent beach-goers from getting to Kellogg [Park],” Wise said.

The Shores Association voted unanimously to support Wise’s efforts toward the art for the activation and his continued work to keep the dining program going. ◆