Santa Cruz transitions to permanent parklet program

An outdoor dining parklet outside the Penny Ice Creamery on Cedar Street in downtown Santa Cruz
An outdoor dining parklet outside the Penny Ice Creamery on Cedar Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Downtown Santa Cruz businesses that want to make their pandemic-era outdoor dining arrangements permanent must apply for a permit by the end of June, and while the city has worked with restaurants and incorporated their feedback on costs and other issues, it’s still a pricey proposition for some.

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Santa Cruz restaurants and food businesses wanting to make permanent the outdoor dining areas that sprung up during the pandemic are facing a deadline: With the city moving from a temporary program to permanent parklets, establishments that want to keep their al fresco spots must apply for a permit by month’s end. Otherwise, barriers and parklets set up to enable outdoor dining during COVID will be removed Oct. 31 when the pandemic rules sunset.

“During the pandemic, the [outdoor dining program] was really successful,” said Rebecca Unitt, economic development manager for Santa Cruz. “It helped a lot of businesses so now we’re working to create a more permanent program.”

Paul Cocking, owner of Gabriella Cafe, said his restaurant will potentially partner with neighbor Flower Bar to create one larger parklet space as he transitions into the permanent program.

“When the weather is good, which it mostly is in Santa Cruz, a lot of people want to sit outside — and of course some people still do so for health reasons,” said Cocking, whose outdoor space can seat about 20 diners. “it’s been really helpful for groups, too.”

At the height of the pandemic, the city issued just over 100 permits for temporary outdoor dining spaces, which included both parklets and those located in private parking lots. Those numbers declined once pandemic-related restrictions were eased. Currently, there are 28 parklet permits and 30 additional outdoor private property permits.

The parklet outside Walnut Avenue Cafe in October 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Over the next few weeks, city officials will be working with local restaurant owners to help those interested in establishing a permanent parklet space. Under the permanent parklet program approved by city officials, businesses will be allowed to transition their temporary parklets into permanent spaces, using either a pre-approved design model or one of their own that’s been designed in alignment with specific guidelines and requirements.

“We did a lot of iterative design on the approved plans, based on feedback we received,” said Unitt.

Some of that feedback included sticker shock over the estimated cost of the permanent parklets, as Lookout reported in November. Initial estimates put the cost of a new parklet (using the pre-approved design) at $50,000 to $70,000; the designs that received the final stamp of approval are estimated to cost $12,000 to $14,000. (See the pre-approved parklet design here.)

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Being able to provide businesses with support and financial assistance was a key goal, said Unitt. For pre-approved designs, businesses are eligible to receive a grant of up to $10,000 to cover construction costs; grants of up to $5,000 are available for retrofit or custom designs. The funding has been specially allocated from the economic development trust fund for this program.

The permanent program will give some restaurants an opportunity to make their outdoor dining more visible. Popular breakfast and lunch spot Zachary’s Restaurant had set up a temporary outdoor dining area in its back parking lot; now, it’s working with the city to create a permanent parklet space on Pacific Avenue.

“We’re really excited about it,” said owner and manager Catherine Kriege. Moving out front will not only be easier logistically, but it’s also an opportunity to create some buzz, especially as that portion of Pacific Avenue is undergoing a dramatic facelift, she said. And city officials have been great to work on the process, she added.

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Even with the grant money, it’s still a pricey proposition for some businesses. Matt Manzo, owner of Cafe GSC (formerly known as Cafe Gratitude), said the temporary program has been hugely helpful, but he’s still on the fence about making it permanent.

“I still have so many questions before I can decide,” said Manzo. “I’d like to get permanent outdoor seating but money is super tight right now. Even with the grant the city is offering, it’s still a big chunk. I’ve been told that since Lincoln Street has a slope to it, it will cost extra to install as well.”

The potential challenge with Lincoln Street is that “the pre-approved designs might not be the best option due to the crown of the road and the amount of curb height needed for the concrete floor to be installed and still have a flat concrete base,” said Unitt. “The cost will really depend on the approach a business takes to construct the parklet.”

It’s questions and concerns like Manzo’s that Unitt and her team are focused on helping businesses navigate over the next few weeks as they continue outreach.

Although the rapid expansion of outdoor dining in 2020 has proved an important test case for al fresco dining in the city, the concept of parklets were first piloted back in 2017 with Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Room and Lupulo Craft Beer House on Cathcart Street. With Cathcart Street now reopened to traffic in both directions, the businesses’ extended outdoor space has been removed, but the original parklets remain.

For restaurants interested in applying for the permanent parklet program, the application and more information are available here.