Main street: Parklets have been a common feature during the pandemic. Clara Harter

“Are you a fan of the expanded outdoor dining in Downtown Santa Monica? If so, the City of Santa Monica wants to hear from you.”

Downtown Santa Monica (DTSM), together with other economic districts and the City of Santa Monica, has been sharing the above message on its social media channels in an effort to encourage community members to take a survey about the parklet program, which expands businesses like restaurants, retail and fitness centers out into parking spaces. 

Now that many COVID-19 restrictions are easing and Santa Monica’s gyms and restaurants are operating at full indoor capacity (with no masking), why keep the parklet program going? DTSM considers it a strong economic driver.

“The Board of Directors for Downtown Santa Monica has been very supportive of the Santa Monica Outdoors program and lobbied for its extension,” according to a statement from the nonprofit. “The Board looks forward to learning more from the City on their plans for a permanent fee structure and operating guidelines so we can ensure access to our public spaces is maintained and that businesses have a fair, affordable, and predictable option going forward. We have some of the best weather in the world in Santa Monica. We should explore as many ways as possible to take advantage of it.”

Although the current parklet program was developed in 2020 during the initial onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it is an evolution of a pilot program the City began in 2019. 

The early parklet program provided shared community space that could be used for residents and visitors to eat takeout or sip coffee outdoors, but was not tied to particular businesses, meaning restaurants couldn’t serve food to customers sitting out under the sun.

“Currently, once the emergency orders expire, the only parklets that would be allowed would be the ones we had established before COVID, which are public-only … businesses cannot use them as an extension of their operations,” Economic Development Manager Jennifer Taylor explained. “So, the survey is really helping us to hear directly from businesses — we have another survey that’s geared for more of our residents and visitors — to just get feedback about the myriad of outdoor operations. Parklets is a big one, but also sidewalk dining, use of private-owned parking lots for outdoor operation — this will help to inform staff.”

According to Taylor and Jacqui Swartz of Santa Monica Outdoors, City staff plan to go before Santa Monica City Council on June 28 with a plan for how to structure the program moving forward, which will likely include a fee program. Fees have been waived for its first two years due to pandemic-related economic hardship.

Part of the survey results will also be used to determine how to regulate the parklets, which up to this point have been more or less a free-for-all for business owners.

“The purpose of that survey is really to understand how people feel about the parklets now, because during COVID they were very popular. People love them, neighbors were really willing to just be patient and accept the situation and the setup, because businesses were trying to survive,” Swartz said. “But now that COVID is — hopefully we’re on the other side of it … people might want to adjust. We want to get a sense of how many people want to keep their parklet so that we understand how much is going to be in the street.”

Swartz added that the program up to this point has been operating without fees or formalized guidelines and requirements, due to the nature of the pandemic.

“We’ve been very loose on some of the guidelines, but part of this effort is also to make sure everyone is in compliance, and it’s not causing any safety concerns and things like that.”

Two surveys are available. Business owners can find their survey here; residents and visitors can find their surveys here.

The deadline to submit survey responses is Friday, April 29.