The City of Santa Cruz issued temporary permits for restaurants to shift to outdoor dining in a hasty response to the statewide COVID state of emergency, which forced the closure of indoor dining facilities during the pandemic. But starting as early as March, business owners will have to go through traditional permitting if they want to keep their outdoor dining spaces. Some restaurateurs say the slow, complicated and expensive process threatens their businesses.
Outdoor dining was a lifeline for Santa Cruz restaurants during pandemic-era closures, with dozens of establishments opening patios and setting up on sidewalks and parking lots. Those efforts were made possible by temporary permits the city issued, which waived many of the typical planning requirements.
Now some restaurants are sounding the alarm on a spring deadline to shut down their temporary outdoor dining facilities or undertake the costly and time-consuming effort of applying for a permanent permit.
The problem is that these temporary permits were issued in a hasty response to the statewide COVID-19 state of emergency, which forced the closure of indoor dining facilities during the pandemic. But with COVID restrictions lifted long ago, business owners will soon have to go through the traditional permit process if they want to keep their outdoor dining spaces.
The new rules, set to kick in next spring, apply only to temporary outdoor dining permits on private property. Santa Cruz has already created a separate permanent program for parklets, which are outdoor dining areas created in public parking spaces.
The city is working with local business owners in an attempt to create permanent infrastructure for outdoor dining areas on private property. Earlier this month, city officials introduced a new process for restaurants and bars to follow to gain these permanent permits. But so far, it’s been a slow, complicated undertaking and, in its current form, remains cost-prohibitive for many business owners.
In a newsletter sent out last week, La Posta owner Patrice Boyle warned that it could cost as much as $50,000 to comply with the new rules, which would result in the Seabright restaurant closing its patio altogether. She wrote that the city has “been sparse with facts that would allow us to make crucial and informed decisions.”
There are currently 21 businesses in Santa Cruz that still hold active temporary permits, according to Rebecca Unitt, the city’s economic development manager. Those permits are set to expire March 31, although that deadline is likely to be extended, she said. Among those businesses are restaurants, bars, breweries and winery tasting rooms throughout the city of Santa Cruz. (The full list is here.)
Unitt acknowledged that the process can be challenging for business owners to navigate.
“It can be daunting and we totally understand that,” said Unitt, adding that city officials are working to streamline things as much as possible.
While the planning commission is in charge of the permitting process, she said her office is on hand to work with business owners, including helping them determine what permits they need, what steps they need to take next and how to manage the process.
Max Turigliatto holds a temporary permit for an outdoor space behind his bar, Mission West, in Santa Cruz’s Westside neighborhood, and is also a member of the subcommittee of business owners working with the city to find a working solution to transfer these permits from temporary status to permanent.
Turigliatto opened his business at the end of 2019, and the outdoor dining space he created more than doubled his usable space. It was more than a lifeline during the pandemic; it became a cornerstone of his business.
“We’ve created something for the community with that patio. It’s become this very popular after-party wedding spot. We do anywhere from three to four weddings a month,” he said.
He said he believes that the city recognizes that Santa Cruz is an outdoor-loving community and is committed to finding a way to keep these spaces.
“It’s not about whether or not we’re going to be able to keep our patios, it’s just about how we go about it,” he said.
‘A complete can of worms’
But Boyle’s concerns that the current plan will be cost-prohibitive for many restaurant owners are valid, Turigliatto says. The largest concern is when square footage is added to a business, the business has to be reassessed to make sure that it is up to codes set by the state, county and city.
“When you add square footage to a building it triggers things. For example, are we now required to have an additional bathroom?” he said. “If you have to put a storm drain under a trash receptacle, you’re talking six figures.”
Turigliatto said he hopes the city might be able to “bridge the gap” between state mandates and what will be required by local jurisdictions. He and other business owners asked the city to consider whether it could “grandfather in” the outdoor dining spaces that already exist with temporary-use permits, for example.
“If not, it could be a complete can of worms,” he said. “And even though the city wants these patios to continue, I have concerns that it might be out of their control on the cost.”
Losing his patio would mean letting go of some employees and significant financial loss for Turigliatto’s business. But he believes that the city will be able to find a middle ground before that happens.
The next likely step is another extension for the temporary permits, he said: “We’re all in limbo right now.”
‘We want the same things’
In 2020, owner Luca Viara created an outdoor patio at Tramonti, his Italian restaurant in the Seabright neighborhood, virtually overnight. At the time, he thought the city was responsive and helpful toward restaurants that wanted to extend their dining capacity outdoors.
NAVIGATING NEXT STEPS
To begin the process, business owners will need to draw up plans for their outdoor facility that meet state and local business codes. For most, this means working with a licensed design architect. If the business is located within a certain proximity of a residential zone, it will need to present those plans before a zoning administration meeting — where the public will have a chance to comment. If the zoning administrators approve it, the business will then need to go through a building permit review, which looks at things like structural integrity and safety. This process will be handled by the planning commission, which is in charge of ultimately greenlighting (or not) the permits. Costs for the administrative-use permit range from $4,500 to $5,000.
Business owners will need to consider factors like fencing and whether they comply with state guidelines on how many restrooms are needed per capacity.
The permits will be a one-time thing, and won’t require annual reviews or inspections. While this is ultimately a planning department matter, the economic development department is available to help business owners navigate the process, ensure they have the right paperwork and ask any questions, said Rebecca Unitt, the city’s economic development manager.
Design guidelines and other basic components that businesses will need to adhere to are still being finalized, and the city just completed a survey to collect information from businesses and community members about their concerns over operating hours, noise, etc. This will help the city determine where it needs to focus more and how to best align the guidelines, said Unitt. All of this is happening in real time; once the policy is fully formed, it will go to the planning commission for approval, currently pegged for Oct. 19. From there, it goes to the city council for a vote, which as of now is set for Nov. 28. At that time, the city will also determine the new deadline for businesses to comply with the permanent permit process.
— Jessica M. Pasko
Viara invested in heat lamps, wind protection, lights and other features to create the feeling of a cozy, outdoor space rather than a temporary structure. The space’s impact on his business over the past three years has been huge. During the lockdown, he says, it saved his business.
And it’s not done yet. “People still prefer to eat outdoors. We have huge requests to sit outdoors over indoors,” Viara said. “Before, outside was the second choice and people preferred to eat indoors. Now it’s the opposite.”
He also said he hopes the city will find a way to “grandfather in” all or part of his structure. An extension of at least another year would allow him to save money for any necessary changes, too. Whatever the process, he said some restaurant owners might not want to commit to what will certainly be a challenging transition.
“Financially and psychologically, it’s a huge process,” Viara said. “I don’t think everyone is ready to commit to something big.”
Viara has attended meetings and been involved in conversations with city workers. While a consensus has not yet been reached on how to navigate the layers of city and state requirements in order to keep the outdoor seating areas, he’s optimistic that the city will work with business owners to find one.
“We really want the same things and are on the same page. We want to keep it; we want businesses to succeed and the community to enjoy these outdoor spaces,” Viara said.
“The city [body responsible for the permits] is made of people who live in Santa Cruz. Some of them are my customers,” he said. “It’s just as important to them to keep the structures. We are the same community. We’re working together, not against each other.”
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