All over Los Angeles, outdoor dining spots sprouted like mushrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to relaxed city rules that allowed struggling restaurants to re-open more safely. But those pandemic-era relaxations, which helped save restaurants and boost the economy during the darkest days of COVID-19, are about to expire…and a fight is brewing between the city and its restaurants over what comes next.
Change is Hard…and Changing Back May Be Even More Difficult
When the City of Los Angeles’ COVID-19 order expired on February 1, it meant that many support systems we’ve been living with for the last three years, such as online civic meetings and tenant eviction protections, expired as well…or will after a brief grace period. But in at least a few cases, the COVID-era changes have become such a big part of our lives – many would argue for the better – that going back to the way we used to do things may not be such a good idea.
We’ve written here about our local neighborhood councils’ struggles with the in-person vs. virtual meeting question…and today we’ll look at another issue that specifically affects our local restaurants: how to permanently legalize the many outdoor dining areas the city encouraged and quickly permitted under its 2020 emergency order.
During the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants were closed because it wasn’t safe for people to gather in indoor spaces. But in May, 2020, the City of Los Angeles tossed out a lifeline – an Al Fresco dining program that allowed eateries to quickly establish a variety of new outdoor dining areas on both their own private property (particularly parking lots), and in the public right of way (streets and sidewalks). Existing zoning codes had previously rendered most of these spaces off-limits for such use, but the new program temporarily over-rode existing regulations, both allowing and strongly encouraging restaurants to more safely serve food outdoors. Restaurants scrambled to comply, and the move helped many of them survive.
And to almost no one’s surprise over the next three years, the new outdoor dining areas proved extremely popular. In city surveys taken in the summer of 2022, 308 restaurant owners and 2,775 city residents expressed overwhelming support for al fresco dining spaces, and for permanently legalizing them.
So now the Department of City Planning is trying to figure out how to do that, starting with an ordinance governing al fresco dining on private property, including restaurants’ own parking lots. While this initial ordinance will not affect most of our Larchmont Blvd. restaurants (which have their al fresco dining areas on public streets and sidewalks), it definitely would affect a number of other popular local restaurants in our general area.
Proposed Regulations for Al Fresco Dining on Private Property (Parking Lots, etc.)
As currently proposed, the new ordinance for outdoor dining spaces on private property would require restaurants with existing outdoor dining spaces – if they want to keep using those spaces – to re-apply for new city permits. And restaurants creating outdoor dining spaces for the first time would have to apply for new permanent permits as well. The new permits would be “by right” for some restaurants, but if alcohol is served outdoors, or if other things like the restaurant’s overall square footage has changed due to the outdoor serving space, the application would require a much lengthier and expensive discretionary approval process, possibly including a new Conditional Use Permit.
In some ways, the new provisions for outdoor dining would be a bit more generous than older laws. For example, unlike with pre-pandemic zoning laws, the portion of a restaurant’s square footage that can be outdoors would not be limited under the proposed new ordinance…and using parking lots for dining space would be automatically allowed in certain circumstances. Also, using parking spaces for dining would not require the restaurant to add additional parking spaces to make up for those lost to the dining areas.
In other respects, however, the proposed ordinance would impose requirements that the original emergency-era provisions did not. These would including limiting the number of parking spaces sacrificed to outdoor dining to five spaces per restaurant, regardless of the size of the restaurant or its parking lot.
Also, while outdoor dining spaces could be covered or uncovered, at least 50% of the perimeter would have to remain open from the ground to the top of any overhead structure, except for a “partial height” wall.
And, finally, outdoor dining hours would be limited to the hours of the restaurant’s kitchen, and to 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. when adjacent to a residential area. Music, dancing, live entertainment, TV screens, speakers, private events, and cover charges would not be allowed in outdoor dining areas.
Reactions So Far
Both restaurateurs and their patrons have expressed much enthusiasm for making outdoor dining spaces permanent, with many people saying they’ve added a dimension to the city’s social and cultural landscape that it should have always had but didn’t. (After all, with the exception of the past few weeks, Los Angeles usually has some of the best weather of any city in the world.)
Both restaurateurs and patrons have also lauded the city for finding a way around the usual permitting red tape to allow outdoor dining during the period governed by the COVID-19 emergency order…a move that many restaurant owners say was the difference between life and death for their businesses.
At the same time, however, many of those same restaurant owners, and others, are just as vehemently speaking out against specific aspects of the current proposal. In fact, at a February 8 public hearing on the draft ordinance to legalize al fresco dining on private property, all but a couple of the 54 speakers during the lengthy public comment period expressed their opposition to parts or all of the ordinance.
The first big issue for many restaurateurs is that the proposed ordinance would replace the original super-rapid, hassle-free permitting system for outdoor dining spaces on private property (which required little more than the completion of a qualifying questionnaire), with a much more complicated, much longer, and much more expensive permitting process that adds back all the traditional red tape, and – especially for restaurants that serve alcohol – will likely require the engagement of a very pricey consultant to navigate.
Many restaurant owners at last month’s hearing agreed with longtime powerhouse restaurateur Bill Chait (Tartine, Republique, etc.), who said at the hearing that forcing restaurants to go through a new full-scale permitting process to legalize what they were previously encouraged to build quickly and have been operating successfully ever since, would be a “nightmare.” Chait said the new legalization process should be just as easy as it was to sign up during the emergency order, and that the improvement outdoor dining has made in the LA dining scene was actually a big positive that came out of the pandemic. Reverting to previous and overly-complicated permitting processes, Chait said, is a sign that the City has lost sight of its mission – “to create a great city and great dining options, which is true of every great city in the world.”
Many other speakers at the public hearing agreed, saying the city’s general approach to the issue – creating separate permitting processes, governed by separate groups of city agencies, for outdoor dining on private property and in public right-of-way areas – makes things especially confusing for restaurant owners, some of whom will have to navigate two whole sets of new rules and regulations, because they now have outdoor dining areas on both private property and in the public right of way.
Christy Vega, owner of Casa Vega restaurant in Sherman Oaks, said the proposed changes would be “death to all restaurants,” and that many – including hers – may have to close because they don’t have the time, money, or other resources to navigate the new, overly complicated permit process.
Vega and others said restaurants that already have outdoor dining areas, many of which are small, mom-and-pop businesses still struggling to survive after barely hanging on during the last three years, should simply be grandfathered, without having to obtain new permits at all. And restaurants seeking first-time al fresco dining permits, said Vega and others, should similarly be welcomed with a fast, easy registration process.
“You’ve got it all backwards” with the proposed approach, said another restaurateur, Megan La Breque, asking that restaurants and their owners be treated as heroes for surviving the pandemic and following the city’s requests to keep operating with outdoor dining…and not punished with onerous re-permitting processes for simply doing what was asked of them to help the economy.
Agreeing with the others, another speaker, Therone Grignay, said the new rules would “turn a moment of pride to a moment of pain” for restaurants.
And it wasn’t just restaurant owners objecting at the hearing. Many other speakers, who said they work as DJs, wine importers, restaurant consultants, or for restaurant business organizations, noted that jeopardizing restaurants’ ability to keep their doors open would have a “far reaching ripple effect,” hitting not just individual restaurants and their employees, but the vast web of associated vendors, suppliers, and contractors.
Finally, in addition to the general complaints about a too-confusing and too-burdensome application/legalization process, there were many more specific complaints about the proposed ordinance, including:
- It’s not fair to limit parking lot dining to five spaces for all restaurants, no matter how large a restaurant or its parking lot is.
- COVID isn’t over, and many people don’t want to go back inside restaurants yet…so if a restaurant is forced to give up its outdoor dining spaces because it doesn’t have the resources to get them re-permitted, many customers will simply stay away, and the business will continue to struggle and/or close.
- It will also be difficult for restaurants to remain viable if they’re not allowed to have private events, TVs, and music in their outdoor dining areas.
- The “partial height walls” that would be required around outdoor dining spaces are not high enough to keep non-customers out, or to keep customers from passing things like liquor to people outside the dining area.
Some of the speakers also noted that the simple al fresco permitting process was a real breakthrough for the city, so we should now build on that triumph instead of reverting to previous levels of complication, cost, and complexity.
The original Al Fresco program, said one restaurant owner, “was the first time I felt truly embraced at a bureaucratic level.”
Another, who owns a restaurant in Playa del Rey, said the pandemic push toward al fresco dining was “the one moment when the city came to our aid.”
“I need the city to be on my side,” she said, “To be a support for me to stay in business.”
And while these were just a few among the many who came to the hearing…even more restaurant professionals have been speaking out against the proposed ordinance on social media. These include local restaurant legends Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne (Lucques, AOC, etc.), who joined with the owners of Pourhaus Wine Society and others in encouraging people to read a February 7 story in the LA Times, in which even more restaurateurs recounted their business’ near-death experiences during the pandemic, how they were saved by the city-supported pivot to outdoor dining, and how they will be re-jeopardized if they don’t have the time or money to navigate a lengthy new permitting process.
“It’s like being kicked in the shins, over and over again,” said Holly Fox, owner of the Last Word Hospitality restaurant group, in the Times story.
Meanwhile, Eddie Navarrette, executive director of the Independent Hospitality Coalition, a group that advocates for and supports independent restaurants, got even more specific in the Times story about the difficulties the new ordinance would present to restaurants:
“Navarrette estimates that the application process alone for a conditional use permit can cost $20,000 and take about a year for planning approval. According to Navarrette, if you want to apply to have seating outside that is more than 50% of what you already have inside, you’ll need to apply for some kind of zone variance, which is another application and fee. For restaurants that need help navigating the red tape, that could cost another $20,000 for a consultant.
“If you want seating on your private parking lot, you’re going to need to hire someone to draw plans for you, draft them up, submit them to building and safety, have them review them, issue corrections with a series of back and forth, have a contractor pull the permit and have an inspector inspect the place,” Navarrette said. “It’s the same type of permit you would have to get if you did a major remodel or expansion. How is anyone going to afford this?””
The bottom line is that the city does need to figure out how to keep its outdoor dining program going since the Emergency Order has expired. And the proposed Al Fresco ordinance is the path it has chosen. So the ball is now in the public’s court to speak up about whether or not it’s the right path.
Public comments for the Planning Department’s staff report on the proposed Al Fresco ordinance were originally scheduled to close on February 28. But the deadline was recently extended until 5 p.m. on Friday, March 3. (Comments will be accepted after that date, too, but only those received by March 3 will be included in the Planning Department’s staff report to the City Planning Commission.)
The staff report, including Planning Department recommendations, will be presented to the City Planning Commission sometime this spring. And after a CPC vote, the proposal will go to the City Council for further discussions, hearings, and votes.
If you would like to submit a comment on the proposed Al Fresco ordinance, email alfresco.pla[email protected], or send a letter via paper mail to Mary Richardson, Department of City Planning, 200 North Spring Street, Room 701, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Be sure to reference the Planning Department case number – CPC-2022-8179-CA – in all communications.
Finally, for more information on the proposed Al Fresco Dining ordinance, see https://planning.lacity.org/plans-policies/outdoor-dining#about and https://planning.lacity.org/plans-policies/outdoor-dining#outreach. You can also watch the video of the February 8 public hearing (which includes an informational presentation as well as the public comments) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BN4Olk_D6UE. Full text of the draft ordinance is available here.
[Note: the Buzz has reached out to several local restaurants that will likely be affected by the new ordinance, but so far we have not received comments from them.]
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
- More Posts