Dining: Council has extended fee waivers for businesses using the street as part of a Covid recovery package. Emily Sawicki

Like eating dinner outside on Main Street? Enjoy taking a fitness class on the beach? These programs aren’t going anywhere — at least not yet.

Last Tuesday, May 10, City Council voted unanimously, 5-0, to allow the current outdoor “parklet” program, which includes dining, retail and gyms, plus other outdoor uses such as fitness classes in parks, to continue to operate fee-free for another summer.

The current extension — which runs through Sept. 30, 2022 — grants city staff time to formulate a potential fee structure and new regulations for parklets, which currently operate without much City oversight.

“We really do appreciate the city’s flexibility and speed in implementing this program, and we further appreciate the city’s willingness to make it permanent, because that’s clearly what the vast majority of businesses and people want,” Hunter Hall, president of the Main Street Business Owners Association, said following the vote to extend the program.

Hall helped spearhead an earlier version of the current parklet program, which was first piloted years before the pandemic. It was because of this early experiment with al fresco street-side dining, Hall said, that the City was so nimble in its introduction of the current parklet plan. 

“When COVID hit, we were already kind of refining what a parklet program would look like street-wide,” Hall described. “And that’s why we were able to successfully lobby for it and get it approved and paid for by the City so quickly. Because it was literally on the shelf. We just dusted it off … a little bit.”

Speaking during the council meeting, City of Santa Monica Economic Development Manager Jennifer Taylor said the extension would provide “critical and continued support” to small businesses.

“We’re on the road to economic recovery, but it’s still — it’s a slow road for many of our small businesses who are still struggling to pay deferred rents, and so this would be a much needed relief effort to help support them,” Taylor told council. 

Extending the current program is also designed to help ease the transition into a new parklet program that is still in the works but will most likely include monthly fees, and other regulations.

Hall said he was not sure what the new program may look like, but predicted “adjustments to the spacing and perhaps size and construction of some of the parklets,” especially in relations to crosswalks and red curbs. In prior conversations, Taylor also said new rules would likely regulate parklets to better ensure safety. 

Staff was planning to come back to council in June with a proposal for how to shape the future of the parklet program moving forward.

City council did not discuss the extension prior to their vote, but Councilmember Oscar de la Torre weighed in, saying it was difficult to imagine going back to a time before the parklet program was in place. De la Torre said he recently dined at Gilberts El Indio in the Pico neighborhood.

“It’s just kind of hard to imagine El Indio not having that option, that outdoor — I think if we work with businesses, they can turn that into something just a little bit nicer than just an older parking lot,” de la Torre said, adding that the new emphasis on walkability and outdoor dining was “one of the few good things that COVID has given us.”

When staff return before council with a proposal in June, it will include input from two simultaneous surveys of businesses and residents/visitors, who were asked to weigh in on the program’s future. Results from those surveys were set to be available around late May, according to Taylor.

Clara Harter contributed to this report.