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People walk past the wind shades at the Makai restaurant and bar on Broadway and Ocean Avenue Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — They’re considered vital to the successful operation of a restaurant with an outdoor dining section, offering patrons the luxury of an alfresco environment with protection from the elements.

But depending on how retractable weather screens are used, they can be illegal.

That’s what a handful of restaurants along Ocean Avenue learned recently when they received a notice from City Hall that the wind guards were in violation of local laws.

The Outdoor Dining Standards for Ocean Avenue, a city planning document that sets guidelines for restaurants along the beach-facing corridor, states that outdoor dining areas are to be designated by semi-permanent barriers that are removable and stand no taller than 3 feet 6 inches from the sidewalk level. Windscreen attachments from the barrier are permitted but must be transparent and no taller than 2 feet, bringing the combined height to 5 feet 6 inches.

Eileen Fogarty, the director of planning and community development, said enforcement officers went out in response to complaints that the restaurants were in violation. The warnings were issued to restaurants whose windscreens exceeded the height restriction or because they completely enclosed the dining area.

The Bayside District Corp., a private-public management company that oversees Downtown Santa Monica, recently sent a letter of concern to the City Council, asking that they suspend enforcement and review and possibly modify the design standards. The council is expected to take up the matter in July.

“We heard that restaurants were having a problem complying with the code and we want to make sure restaurants can be successful,” Bill Tucker, the Bayside chairman, said in an interview on Wednesday. “We don’t want to drive them out of business.”

In his letter to the council, Tucker notes that the windscreen allows the restaurants to use the outdoor dining areas to their full potential and adds that the shields are rolled up and lowered when the weather is nice. He adds that the patios are unusable for extended periods of time without the guards.

Tucker said that Bayside staff is willing to work with City Hall on the issue and estimates that the entire process of reviewing and changing the ordinance would take approximately 18 months.

Ma’Kai, a restaurant and lounge on the corner of Broadway and Ocean Avenue, received a letter of warning several months ago because the weather screens created an enclosed patio, Mike Rosa, the general manager, said. The screens are currently retracted because the weather has been fair but the restaurant has filed for an extension beyond the 30 days from which they were ordered in the warning to comply, Rosa said.

“It’s only temperate half the year and during the winter months, it’s necessary to make it a dine-able space,” he said.

Jeff King, the chairman of King’s Seafood Co., said that all 17 restaurants in its organization, including iCugini and Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica, have patios and use some kind of protective screen. The two restaurants, which are located on Ocean Avenue, were not among the warned.

“I think some kind of barrier is essential, decor-wise, atmosphere-wise, the elements-wise,” he said. “We wouldn’t have a patio if we could not protect.”

Fogarty, who was not with City Hall when the design standards were adopted, said that communities historically encourage outdoor dining areas because it adds to the pedestrian experience, creating a European, sidewalk cafe-like feel.

“The issue has been that it is city land, it’s open and the idea has been that while the activity is desired, it should not be something that’s closed off,” she said. “When you go out to outdoor dining, it’s typically not closed off at all, it’s a few tables and some chairs.”

She added that in most areas, a windscreen would not be necessary, but believes the council allowed the guards because of the windier conditions on Ocean Avenue.

“In general, outdoor dining is seen as something positive,” she said. “It meets the city’s goals for pedestrian activity and I think the council wanted to make sure that it did not become something that was closed off and feel like a private space.”

In addition to the wind screens, Bayside is also hoping that City Hall will be able to address another restriction on outdoor dining areas, this one concerning the ban on patio umbrellas for restaurants in the transit mall along Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway just off the Third Street Promenade. The umbrellas are permitted on the promenade.

Bayside is planning on working with city staff to review the current ordinance, Kathleen Rawson, the executive director, said.

Ellen Gelbard, the assistant director of planning and community development, said it could just be a matter of updating the ordinance, which has not been changed since the transit mall was created.

Bayside plans to work with city staff to review the ordinance, Kathleen Rawson, the executive director of Bayside, said.

“Some folks like protection from the sun so the umbrellas seem like an important part of a comfortable dining experience,” Rawson said.