Quick Take:

The City of Santa Cruz does not want to remove any of the outdoor dining spaces that popped up during the pandemic. Quite the contrary, says Bonnie Lipscomb, Santa Cruz’s economic development director. The city wants to help restaurants keep the parklets and outdoor dining options and transition from temporary to permanent permits. The process can take time, she says, but the city is working to streamline it. The ultimate goal, she says, is to keep these spaces open long-term and keep dining outdoors safe and accessible to all.

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Outdoor dining is an integral part of Santa Cruz’s cultural and economic landscape, and I want to reassure the public that the City of Santa Cruz is working to keep the downtown parklets and private property outdoor dining and seating spaces open.

This will benefit everyone — the public who love eating outside and the businesses who have come to rely on them through these trying economic times.

I am the city’s economic development director, and my staff and I have been working with our larger city team and the outdoor dining city council subcommittee to streamline the process for businesses to secure permanent approval for outdoor dining.

We are not — as some suggest — mandating the removal of any outdoor dining areas on private property. On the contrary, the city and the city council unanimously support the continued, uninterrupted operation of these spaces and have extended temporary permits to keep them open.

Staff and the outdoor dining subcommittee are working closely with business owners to make the permitting process as transparent and fast as possible.

Right now, we have 21 businesses with outdoor dining and seating on private property and around 25 businesses operating parklets on city property.

We all agree outdoor dining is good for economic recovery and community well-being, and we want to keep these outdoor seating spaces open.

Currently, the businesses are operating with temporary permits — which the city issued during the pandemic as a way to keep restaurants open. During that time, the city also provided 25 microloans and initiated a countywide loan program with low interest rates to keep local businesses afloat. This approach proved successful and we have one of the lowest ground-floor vacancy rates in the region.

Our aim now is to ensure a smooth transition from those temporary permits to permanent approval.

But we need to be careful. We need to make sure we comply with state and local codes to ensure long-term safety and accessibility standards.

This, unfortunately, can sometimes take time.

I want to make sure to highlight the difference between public parklets and private outdoor seating and dining areas. Parklets are outdoor seating areas constructed in public right-of-way parking spaces and are largely standardized. They require city approval and are managed by my office (economic development) in coordination with public works. We have an established set of requirements and safety features for operating parklets in public parking spaces on the street.

I’m happy to say we already have 22 applications for permanent parklets underway.

On the other hand, creating outdoor seating areas on private property can be more complicated.

The outdoor seating that sprang up at Seabright restaurant Tramonti during the pandemic.
The outdoor seating that sprang up at Seabright restaurant Tramonti during the pandemic. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Each space is not standardized and has to be evaluated based on the site’s unique circumstances, including location, amount of seating, accessibility, proximity to other uses, what structures have been built, etc.

The city has to ensure the spaces will be safe for people to gather — which means the space has to comply with state and local building and safety codes.

Our team knows some businesses are frustrated with the time the review process takes.

We are working with staff across the city to streamline the review process as much as possible. This work is ongoing and the temporary permits will be extended as long as necessary until we are able to finalize the approval process.

But, as much as we love eating outdoors, we value safety above all. And we also want to make sure these spaces will last, which means getting the approvals right the first time so this seating can be permanent.

So, what do businesses need to do?

Businesses that have constructed private outdoor dining and seating areas under the temporary program or without temporary permits will need to submit an application to the city’s planning and community development office for review. We can’t simply “grandfather” the temporary outdoor dining spaces, since we have to make sure each site is safe for long-term use and complies with accessibility standards.

Some of these permits can be granted quickly — possibly in just a few weeks. Others will take longer, as we work with business owners to address outstanding issues, including building code or accessibility needs.

Why, some ask, were we able to get permits so quickly during the pandemic?

Bonnie Lipscomb, Santa Cruz economic development director, speaks at a community meeting
Bonnie Lipscomb, Santa Cruz economic development director, speaks at a community meeting in May. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

During the pandemic, the city was operating under a state of emergency declaration, which enabled us to approve temporary permits for outdoor dining and seating areas quickly. Now that the state of emergency declaration has lifted, the city must review each outdoor seating and dining area for permanent occupancy.

For our part, the city promises to work directly with each business to keep existing outdoor dining and seating areas open as we work through the permanent approval process.

We are committed to making the transition as smooth as possible for businesses, and we are committed to the long-term business success of all our locally owned businesses in Santa Cruz.

We’re happy to say, downtown Santa Cruz has 30-plus new businesses since 2022.

We want to encourage even more businesses to choose Santa Cruz and we are determined to help our existing businesses thrive.

Bonnie Lipscomb is the economic development director for the City of Santa Cruz. Bonnie has worked in the community for over 16 years and was awarded the “Person of the Year” by the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce in 2022 for her work in the community and supporting businesses during the pandemic. For more information on business assistance the city offers, please visit ChooseSantaCruz.com.