Starting in May, Santa Barbara restaurants with dining parklets will have to pay a fee for the privilege of expanding their business outdoors.
The goal of the fee is to fully recover the city’s costs of cleaning, maintaining and operating the downtown promenade.
The variable rate fee structure, approved Thursday by the Santa Barbara City Council, will give restaurateurs the option of lowering their cost from $5 or more per square foot based on modifications they make to their parklets — like removing their platforms and/or roofs and/or making them portable.
“It incentivizes portability and an updated design that allows businesses to determine the rate they pay based on what they are going to put outside,” Brian Bosse, the city’s downtown team manager, told the council. “It gives them the opportunity to design what they want based on their needs.”
The council directed staff to return to the council with a resolution to amend the city’s fee schedule to allow for the variable design rates, with a start date of this May for implementation.
Mr. Bosse told the council that options presented by staff would fully cover the city’s costs related to cleanup, maintenance and operations from the 400 block to the 1300 block of State Street. It would include the cost of enforcing the license agreement each restaurant would have to sign.
The city’s costs for fiscal 2023, just over $515,000, are already covered, but staff projects they will increase to $675,000 in fiscal 2024. The variable rate structure the council approved is expected to bring in $650,000 in revenue. Staff anticipates there will be an attrition rate of 25% for businesses opting to not pay any fees and remove their parklets.
Councilmember Eric Friedman strongly endorsed this proposal, as opposed to an option that all restaurants pay the same uniform price to keep their parklets without the option of reducing their costs by meeting the city’s preferred design guidelines.
“We need to adopt something, and we need to do it today,” he said.
Those restaurants that refuse to make changes to their existing parklets would have to pay $5 per square foot and more if they extend beyond their storefront, but with the variable rate structure, “that can go as low as $3,” he said.
“It’s the nonconforming structures that would be at the higher rate,” he said.
Councilmember Friedman’s motion to approve the variable rate structure was backed by Councilmembers Mike Jordan and Alejandra Gutierrez. Mayor Randy Rowse, Mayor Pro Tempore Meagan Harmon and Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez opposed the motion.
With Councilmember Kristen Sneddon absent, the vote ended in a 3-3 tie.
Mayor Rowse objected to both options and the multiple rates each contained, likening the process of choosing one to being on a game show.
Councilmembers Harmon and Oscar Gutierrez wanted to continue the matter to a regularly scheduled council meeting versus voting on it during Thursday’s special session in the David Gebhard Public Meeting Room on Garden Street.
Both wanted to allow for more public input, especially from restaurateurs.
“We want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to comment,” Ms. Harmon said.
“It’s such an important topic to the future and vitality to State Street, we need to have stakeholders present and commenting,” he added.
But the three council members who wanted to approve a fee structure Thursday objected to delaying the vote.
Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez said she accepted that there was not a lot of public comment Thursday, but noted this topic has been considered for a long time, and that restaurateurs continue to voice their opinions by phone and email.
“A lot of people in the community have gone to hell and back, not just the restaurants, and they never attend city council meetings,” she said. “We need to have some structure. We asked staff to give us a report, and now we’re going to postpone? We can’t be doing this to the public.”
Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, nevertheless, made a motion to continue the item. It ended in another 3-3 stalemate.
So Councilmember Friedman appealed directly to Mayor Rowse, asking what it would take for him to change his vote. He stressed that both options presented by staff ensured the city would recover the city’s full cost of taking care of the pedestrian promenade — a key demand by the mayor, who insisted earlier he would not vote for any plan that built in a structural deficit,
“Anything short of full recovery is irresponsible on our part,” Mayor Rowse said.
Councilmember Friedman’s plea apparently worked, because he made another motion to approve the variable rate fee structure, and this time the mayor joined the other side, creating a 4-2 majority in support of the motion.
The council will have to readdress the entire parklet issue later this year, because the emergency ordinance passed during the COVID-19 pandemic that closed State Street and authorized the parklets is due to expire at the end of 2023.
Assistant City Attorney Dan Hentschke told the council it would have to approve another ordinance in November to keep everything in place beyond the end of the year.
Staff anticipates operation on lower State Street might have to continue on an interim basis for another two to five years until the State Street Master Plan commences in earnest, to, as Mayor Rowse put it, “redesign, reinvent and repurpose State Street.”
Never a parklets fan, he conceded they might have to stay in place until then, but
voiced his displeasure at the prospect.
“We closed State Street for one reason, for COVID and to keep the restaurants alive,” he said. But they make up a relatively small group of storefronts, he said, and the closure hasn’t helped out other businesses. Nor has it filled vacant storefronts.
“We haven’t increased the pie. We’ve merely taken the pie’s slices and concentrated them in one area,” Mayor Rowse said.
“State Street is a long street. It’s our street. It’s everyone’s street. And we’re missing parades and a lot of things we normally do.
“To keep it closed to do what we’re doing now is escaping me. I’m trying to find justification. We have a defined sensitive district with a bunch of plywood parklets in there. It’s strange-looking to me that we’ve continued this for a long hard time.”