ST. PETE BEACH — COVID-19 could inspire the city to formally allow restaurants and bars to use public parking spaces fronting their establishments for outdoor seating.
During the Oct. 27 commission meeting, City Manager Alex Rey said the city is studying an extension of its temporary endorsement of outdoor seating, currently permitted along Eighth Avenue and Corey Avenue, as a result of the pandemic.
“This is not new,” Rey said. “City staff picked from different municipalities and created a draft Parklet Program Plan that could ultimately lead towards adoption of a formal resolution.”
He said it is “just the beginning of discussion,” and the commission should indicate if they think it’s the right direction. Then, the issue would go to the city’s Planning Board, and likely to the Historic Board if changes are made in the historic district. “All that depends on whatever guidance you give us,” Rey said.
Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer McMahon reminded commissioners one of the adaptations the city made in addressing COVID was to allow temporary outdoor dining in public parking spaces for businesses that could benefit with the additional seating.
“We have seen that businesses and patrons have enjoyed the benefit of the outdoor seating,” she said. “This discussion will be a guide to the development and implementation of a permanent Parklet Program for the city.”
McMahon told commissioners restaurants and taverns are now depending on their outdoor seating to remain in business, since most customers opt to sit outdoors rather than inside.
“As we continue to navigate through this pandemic, the desire for people to eat outdoors has grown immensely. Restaurants report three out of four people choose dining outdoors over indoors,” she said.
Under the city’s proposed program, Parklet dining is permitted on streets with speed limits of 25 mph or less. Seating areas can be situated along the curb line on streets where on-street parking spaces exist. They can be considered in any location where there are spaces for on-street parallel, angled, or perpendicular parking, including spaces with metered or unmetered parking.
In general, outdoor dining tables must be located at least one parking space away from an intersection or street corner. A dining area near a corner would have to be adjacent to a curb extension, bulb-out, or some other physical barrier that would protect the Parklet.
Parklet dining will be prohibited in front of active driveways, on street curves or hills where horizontal or vertical sight-distance is an issue. In addition, there must be visibility for anyone parking adjacent to the Parklet. Outdoor dining areas will also be prohibited in bus lanes, in front of fire hydrants, at utility access points like manholes, and at high turnover parking spots.
“Barrier enclosures are required to provide a clearly defined boundary and help create a comfortable and separated space for patrons,” the Parklet Program Plan advises. “A combination of heavyweight barriers and lightweight barriers must be used to demarcate the perimeter of the enclosure. Heavyweight barriers shall be placed no more than 6 feet apart. Lightweight barriers shall be used between heavyweight barriers to form a completely enclosed space.”
In St. Pete Beach, the outdoor dining area will be required to be placed on a platform to provide a structural base for the Parklet. Platforms are not required for Parklet spaces requested for less than a six-month period. In that case tables and chairs may be placed directly on the pavement.
Parklets requested for more than a six-month period are required to provide a platform structure. “The City strongly recommends consulting a design or construction professional to ensure that the platform will be sturdy and safe,” the plan explains. Bolting into the street or penetrating the surface of the road in any way is strongly discouraged and may not be allowed without a restoration plan and an excavation bond posted by the applicant and their contractor.
Mayor Al Johnson said the proposed Parklet Program is designed as “a framework for a process that would get us the outdoor seating ordinance; I know it saved some businesses here,” he said.
“I talked to some business owners, and they say people aren’t comfortable with going inside to eat,” the mayor said. “It’s probably going to last a long time after they say everything is back to normal, people will be reluctant, and very concerned about their health. We want to do everything we can to help (local restaurants) survive.”
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski favored initiating a formal Parklet program. He noted outdoor dining “livens the street up and helps business.” He added, however, that there have been concerns from other businesses about losing available parking.
He added there will be public hearings and each request will be evaluated.
Barry Streib, owner of the Brass Monkey Restaurant on Gulf Way, said that since the pandemic started, “I’d say nine out of ten people want to sit outside. They wait an hour just to sit outside.”
He told commissioners he has already spent over $10,000 on a temporary outdoor seating structure, “and it’s working out great. Everybody wants outdoor dining, it’s healthy for everybody, and I just think that’s the way to go. It’s a no-brainer. Everybody else all over the country is doing it; it’s a lifesaver for everybody.”
While outdoor dining in public parking areas may be good for restaurants, retailers don’t want to prevent their customers from parking near their shops.
Yvonne Marcus, owner of Art Expo Custom Framing/Gallery on Corey Avenue, noted downtown is a very beautiful place with very wide sidewalks. “We have to remember, prior to COVID, retail has been affected by internet shopping, and now even more so,” she said, adding the city needs to compare accessibility and treat everyone equally.
Johnson told staff they have commissioners’ consensus to proceed with working on a Parklet Plan that will include hearings before the Planning Board and City Commission.