A man stands at an intersection on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
A man stands at an intersection on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

Most Pacific Avenue businesses hoping outdoor dining, road closure will become permanent

Though the Santa Cruz City Council approved outdoor dining through the end of 2022, many businesses are hoping the pandemic-inspired venues can be made permanent. But it’s not unanimous, as others are raising concerns about safety and traffic flow.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pacific Avenue has looked different.

Two barriers and two large signs reading “road closed” sit at the intersection of Pacific and Cathcart Street. Just beyond, parklets with seating and patio heat lamps spill out onto downtown Santa Cruz’s main thoroughfare, taking over parking spaces and keeping cars off Pacific between Cathcart and Lincoln streets.

Other parklets can be found on Walnut Avenue and Cedar Street.

This new normal, a product of the pandemic, gave visitors and locals the ability to dine in at their favorite spots in a world where, for a time, that seemed impossible.

The radical change might have been jarring at first, but over time, businesses have grown to appreciate it. So much, in fact, that many want it to remain for good.

Paul Maartense, general manager of Hom Korean Kitchen and Oceans on Pacific Avenue, said the outdoor patios foster a livelier and attractive environment.

“Sometimes there are musicians, dancers, jugglers, you name it,” said Maartense. “I never saw so many people hanging out here before except maybe on New Year’s or Halloween.”

The shared interior of Hom and Oceans is spacious, with TVs and plenty of seating, but Maartense said most people ask to dine under the Pacific Avenue trees regardless.

“We’ll have the football game on, but customers will head for the patio seating anyways,” said Maartense. “People love to people-watch.”

With regard to parking, he said he has not heard complaints, nor does he think the concern is relevant.

“The thing is, these weren’t even parking spaces before the shutdown. There was a Jump Bike station here,” said Maartense. “There was barely any parking available anyways.”

It’s better to use the lots surrounding downtown anyway, he said.

“Have you ever used one of these meter spots? It’s not worth it,” said Maartense. “Even if I’ll just be around for an hour, I’d rather pay the $3.75 max for a spot in a lot.”

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

Walnut Avenue Cafe manager Hector De La Torre agreed.

“We have the parking lot right next door, so it’s not a concern at all,” he said.

A Santa Cruz breakfast staple, Walnut Avenue Cafe has seen its patrons favor outdoor dining as well.

“People love it. More customers ask to eat outside than inside now,” said De La Torre, adding that even on chilly days, outdoor dining remains the go-to option.

He hopes the Pacific Avenue closure remains, he added.

“It’s better because everyone can see other businesses up close and head in rather than just driving by,” said De La Torre. “You can notice places you might not have noticed before.”

While many downtown Santa Cruz restaurants and their patrons are loving the change, other businesses are not so enthusiastic.

Dave Kumec, founder of Mission Hill Creamery, is torn on the change.

“I would not say I am unhappy about the closure, as there are certainly some benefits,” he said. “I do think there should be some form of car traffic.”

Kumec cited an increase in commerce and foot traffic, navigation issues, and visibly dirty streets as his main concerns.

“Closing just one block of Pacific doesn’t add much value,” said Kumec. “I think the street can easily be reopened while maintaining the parklets.”

EyeQ manager Aaron Little has been one of the most vocal critics of the Pacific Avenue closure, saying it has hampered logistics and accessibility.

“Much of our clientele is of older age, and we’ve lost some of those customers because they have to park farther away now,” he said. “Almost all of our couriers that we used for deliveries dropped us because it’s too difficult to reach us now.”

Additionally, EyeQ staff are concerned about their own safety.

“We typically find a few people sleeping at our doors every morning,” said Little. “Some of our staff don’t want to open or close because they feel unsafe.”

He added that the main argument against reopening the block is that the parklets jut out into the street — an argument he believes is inadequate.

“It’s just complete nonsense,” said Little. “I know that there is a way to open the block and keep the parklets, too.”

Jorian Wilkins, executive director of the Downtown Association, is working to do just that.

“It’s awesome for downtown — al fresco dining is so California and so fun,” she said. “I don’t think anyone wants that to go away.”

Wilkins acknowledged the concerns of some establishments, adding that the Downtown Association is there to represent and support all businesses in the area.

“There are plenty of times where the closed block attracts folks with behaviors that are not welcoming or conducive to doing business,” said Wilkins. “With outdoor dining extended, it becomes a question of how we manage our shared spaces.”

In August, the Santa Cruz City Council approved keeping the outdoor dining and road closures in place through the end of 2022. Wilkens said she and the rest of the Downtown Association want to come up with a solution that works for everyone.

“Whether it involves traffic flow and keeping the outdoor dining, there’s no reason we can’t do both,” she said. “I hope to find something that works for everyone. We all want to get along.”