February 24, 2024
After saving restaurants, some COVID-era outdoor dining may not withstand bureaucracy.

RICHMOND — The sturdy wooden parklet outside Point Richmond’s rugby-themed Up & Under Pub & Grill has none of the decorative jerseys for which the local spot is known, lacks any butt-worn stool cushions and exposes its patrons to way too much sunlight to properly be considered a bar.

Yet this outdoor dining setup quickly became a financial godsend for the popular sports tavern during the pandemic, as customers slowly began venturing out after lockdown restrictions were lifted.

But Richmond’s first and only parklet is now in legal limbo, and tentatively slated to be torn down, thanks to a slew of unclear regulations, confusing paperwork and years-long miscommunication inside Richmond City Hall.

Parklet dining area at the Up & Under Pub and Grill along West Richmond Avenue on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, in Richmond, Calif. Many cities expedited outdoor dining during the coronavirus pandemic; however, now these dining additions are feeling the heat from some neighbors and city planners who say they are nuisances, illegal and need to go. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

“COVID was the reason it happened, COVID was the reason why it was rushed, and now COVID is a reason why it is complicated,” owner Nathan Trivers said. “You would think your local city — where you pay taxes and give jobs to the community — would support me to grow, not come in and hinder me.”

As the dust continues to settle on emergency measures from the pandemic, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for the future of parklets, sidewalk patios and other so-called “streeteries” across the Bay Area. City officials are drawing ire from neighbors who feel they’re an unfair use of public space, and wrestling with city planners’ concerns about more mundane — yet crucial — code requirements.

Across the Bay Area, local officials in CampbellLos GatosRedwood City and Saratoga have started considering — or have already implemented — how to make parklets permanent fixtures in their downtowns, joining similar efforts to support East Bay restaurants in places such as EmeryvilleOakland and Alameda. The city of Pleasanton, however, forced their downtown restaurants to remove parklets in January of 2022, sparking a backlash from restaurant owners.

Patrons dine out in the parklet at Burma Superstar restaurant as traffic rides past on Park Street in Alameda, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Trivers joined the long list of Bay Area restaurateurs who started cobbling together safe — or at least safer — outdoor spaces in late 2020. Trying to keep his then-10-year-old business afloat, Trivers opted to build a $20,000 cedar structure atop two parking spaces in the historic downtown, rather than set up flimsy folding chairs and tables along Richmond Avenue’s sloping asphalt.

He made a number of construction revisions to comply with the Richmond engineering department’s requests, according to public records. At first, he said the plans were enthusiastically eased through city red tape “with high fives and rainbows.” Former Public Works Director Yader Bermudez issued an encroachment permit in November of 2020.

But last year, Richmond’s code enforcement department alerted Trivers to several issues with his parklet: It’s too big, too high off the street, lacks a traffic safety component, isn’t movable, is partially located in a red curb zone and is not accessible to all customers. Most importantly, the encroachment permit, which allows the parklet to legally take up public property, expired in December 2021.

Now the city is demanding the removal of the structure unless Trivers restarts the entire permitting process.

“We were on a crazy timeline and hanging off a cliff, but that parklet saved my business,” Trivers said, estimating that the new outdoor dining space brought in $75,000 last year. “Talk about the (city’s) left hand not talking to the right hand — I’ve done everything they wanted me to do.”

Other cities took different approaches, some more complex than others. The Palo Alto City Council, for example, transformed its outdoor dining landscape, voting in March to back new parklet rules that limited size, charged rental fees and required “letters of consent” from neighboring businesses.

In San Jose, outdoor dining was such a hit that elected officials made the “pedestrianization” of San Pedro Street permanent in May, although the process will take more than two years and cost $9.5 million.

Customers sit in the outdoor seating area at O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub at San Pedro Square in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

But the parklet in Point Richmond officially went sideways once a complaint was filed with the city.

In a September 2022 meeting, the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, an advisory group that reports to the council, asked Denée Evans, the city’s Transportation Services project manager, to explain why the parklet was in hot water. While the city has generally been divided about the parklet’s fate, Evans said next steps were still unclear after Trivers initially refused to move forward with new paperwork.

“If there is a complete packet submitted to me, I will review it; if that structure can meet the guidelines, I will review it; if the structure does not meet the guidelines, I will advise how he can meet those,” Evans said. “You have 180 days, usually, to work with us, but we never heard anything within that 180 days.”

The advisory group’s president, Philip Rosenthal, declined further comment on the parklet but said in an email that the issue is in the hands of the city attorney.

“The Neighborhood Council can not support anything that is against code, not ADA compliant, or illegal, nor do we comment on anything that involves legal action,” Rosenthal wrote. “We are a volunteer team of board members acting as a bridge between the community and the city. Personally, I have no idea what’s going on with that mess.”

Councilmember Cesar Zepeda, whose district includes Up & Under, confirmed that the communication gap between Trivers and city staff has widened amid recent frustrations that the pub’s current parklet may not be able to be “grandfathered in.”

As a proponent of parklets, Zepeda said he hopes another plan for compliance materializes.

“The Up & Under is just trying to make our city better, but it’s not fair to the community and the city for this to not be clear,” Zepeda said. “Processes aren’t really sexy, because people want to see action, but sometimes we work so fast to get to the finish line, that it’s to the detriment of city staff and everyone involved.”

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In a perfect world, Trivers wants to pay an annual fee to keep his current parklet, which more than 1,000 people have supported in an online petition. And he said he’s open to resubmitting the correct paperwork, including resolving or working around issues with the parklet’s permits, handicap-accessible seating and elevation.

“I will take complete salt for anything I’ve done wrong or didn’t do, but will the city admit to doing anything wrong? If they still want to remove this, that’ll be another example of why Richmond is sideways,” Trivers said. “We were the first, and we’ll probably be the only parklet until they figure this out.”

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