Santa Barbara City Councilmember Eric Friedman, chair of the Finance Committee, attempted to find a middle ground among the other two committee members on the issue of a parklet fee, but failed, sending the matter to the City Council to decide | Credit: Courtesy

Real world questions about liability in the case of defective roofing, a sufficiency of bathrooms, and the benefits conferred by parklets large or small were so tangled that they derailed the city Finance Committee on Tuesday afternoon. As chairman Eric Friedman reported to the City Council, he and his two colleagues “got stuck” and could not choose from among the suite of options to charge restaurants on State Street for their parklet.

In anticipation of a State Street Promenade master plan in about a year and a half, the city has been setting interim rules for the promenade. Earlier this year, the city decided that new parklets must be portable. At the Finance Committee, city staff presented two fee options, both calculated to give Santa Barbara about $600,000-$670,000, the estimate to maintain and administer the State Street Promenade during each of the next two years. While the details are best captured in the charts below, in general, one option looked at a monthly charge by square foot and the other at a charge based on the complexity of the parklet. About 45 businesses on the 400-1300 blocks of State Street use about 14,000 square feet of the roadway for their dining parklets, with designs ranging from on-the-street movable chairs and tables to solid parklet structures with platforms and roofs.

Clearly, far more than 45 businesses exist even now along downtown’s State Street. During public comment, Richard Yates of Opal Restaurant and Bar noted that the proposed fee was much higher than their indoor rent per square foot while at the same time acknowledging the city’s parklet program had enabled his restaurant to survive. Robin Elander of the Downtown Santa Barbara organization thought a proportional fee was more fair, viewing 14,000 square feet through the lens of the entire streetscape. And Bob Stout of the Wildcat Lounge pointed out that Ventura charged about $200 per business rather than by the square foot.

It was landlord Jim Knell, however, who rang a few bells with his comments about the unintended consequences of larger parklets. As he’d been saying all along, he said, the visibility for his retail tenants was being squeezed out by large parklets. As well, the increase of customers those restaurants might be enjoying meant the “facilities,” or bathrooms, were also experiencing increased use, again to the detriment of other storefronts.

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Mayor Randy Rowse, who’d asked about the city’s liability when it came to a structure with a roof, was nonplussed to learn that Knell could not insure against the liability of a parklet on the city street. (Deputy City Attorney Dan Hentschke assured the committee the city would be indemnified by the business in the fee program.) Rowse also noted that during the pandemic, the only reason to close State Street was so that restaurants could safely conduct business outdoors on the street: “Putting the genie back in the bottle is going to be the real trick.”

Councilmember Meagan Harmon, whose district includes downtown, felt that though a fee was necessary, the question was whether it was fair for restaurants to bear the cost of livening up an entire block so that all businesses could thrive. Harmon found it disturbing that staff estimated that 25 percent of the existing parklets might close because of the fee. As Bob Stout had said, COVID has not gone away, and older people preferred to eat outdoors. She also asked if the implementation date could move closer to the summer months, when tourism season is highest, instead of the proposed spring months.

Though Friedman reasoned that the fee based on the parklet structure would give restaurants more options in choosing how much they wanted to pay, he could get no traction from either Rowse or Harmon. The only thing the three could agree on was to send the issue to a future meeting with the full City Council.

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