Though it may not be the make-or-break it was for county restaurants in the purple-tier days, the need for outdoor dining over the last year has changed the way we view our downtown spaces. Now Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville are exploring new ways to make the temporary pandemic seating a permanent way of life.
In downtown Santa Cruz, there has even been a bit of a return to the feeling of a social gathering place that existed on what was known before the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake as the Pacific Garden Mall. While the post-pandemic Pacific Avenue is a far cry from the pedestrian garden mall that once was, staff and businesses alike are enjoying the fresh air, open scenery and communal settings.
“Everyone keeps saying it feels like a European village,” says Ian McRae, one of the co-owners of Hula’s Island Grill in downtown. “It makes it a much more interactive place.”
Unlike most restaurants in downtown Santa Cruz, Hula’s had a small outdoor dining area for several years prior to the pandemic, having teamed up with neighboring Lúpulo Craft Beer House for a mini-parklet seating area in front of their businesses. During the first stages of the pandemic, Hula’s continued operating with a takeout menu, as well as to-go cocktails—another modification for Covid times. Despite that, Hula’s had to lay off 70 employees; McRae says management worked with them in securing unemployment, gave out micro-loans to those who needed it and had a weekly employee “food bag” program, feeding staff from their kitchen.
“We’re actually still doing it,” McRae says. “I’d say we’ve probably hired back 80% [of the employees let go].”
When restaurants were able to operate again with outdoor dining under the city of Santa Cruz’s Temporary Outdoor Expansion Program, the Cathcart Street businesses were some of the first to apply. Through this program, the city shut down opposing traffic, making it one-way, and restaurants expanded into the street. What was once a humble, 24-person patio grew to a prominent 1,600-square-foot, socially distanced area capable of seating 80 guests.
“I don’t want to say ‘We wouldn’t have survived,’ but I can’t speak highly enough of what the city did for us,” McRae says. “They were so great, and streamlined everything we needed to get done.”
Giant concrete barriers, also known as K-rails or Jersey barriers, surround the perimeter of the patio—an idea McRae got when he saw a bunch of abandoned rails stored along Highway 17 near Scotts Valley. Owned by Caltrans, he says the government entity agreed to loan the barriers for free, provided the restaurant figured out how to move them. After a few phone calls, Watsonville’s Granite Construction agreed to transport them pro bono, a good deed that did not go unnoticed.
“We gave out a lot of gift certificates that day,” McRae laughs. “We really want to thank them and Caltrans.”
According to McRae, diners aren’t the only ones enjoying the cafe-like atmosphere. He says that since the expansion, it has become a popular cruising spot for vintage car owners to show off their passion projects. During last year’s tumultuous CZU Lightning Complex fire, he says diners would often stop mid-meal to give standing ovations to passing fire trucks.
Not everyone has been happy with their experience trying to make the move outdoors, including the MeloMelo Kava Bar just up the street from Hula’s on the 1100 block of Pacific Avenue. Last month GT covered the ongoing saga of their outdoor dining structure—an 8-by-30 foot, pressure-treated wooden parklet structure with an aluminum roof. Owner Rami Kayali says he and his staff tried reaching out to the city and Downtown Association prior to its construction. But when they heard nothing back by the time the contractor had a schedule opening, Kayali decided to go through with the construction. Kayali, who also owns kava bars in Oakland and Berkeley, says he didn’t think it would be a problem.
“The guy who built this has built them throughout the Bay Area,” he says.
Yet, almost immediately after it went up, city officials were at MeloMelo’s door asking about the structure, its construction and where the permits were for it. After a couple weeks of back-and-forth emailing between Kayali and city officials, Santa Cruz tagged the structure to be removed by March 22. The emails cite everything from lack of permits to unsafe anchoring, something Kayali says he fixed with concrete buckets to keep the structure weighed down further. He even offered to pay out-of-pocket for building inspectors to examine the parklet, and told officials he would sign an affidavit to take it down once Pacific Avenue reopened to traffic.
“The anchoring he provided was not approved,” says Rebecca Unitt, who manages the city’s outdoor expansion program.
Unitt says the city has been working with MeloMelo on trying to find a path forward.
“It’s our number one goal. We totally want him to have the space that he needs to be successful,” she says.
As of press time, the structure still stands, although it remains closed to patrons. According to MeloMelo Kava Bar’s general manager Amira Fangary, the city gave the establishment another extension until March 29. However, the city also requested the business pay for a complete architectural and structural engineering review, quoted at roughly $8,000—about double what it cost the bar to build the structure.
In a message to GT, Fangary says the kava bar is also in a Catch-22 situation because engineering reviews are typically used for permanent structures. Yet city officials are requiring MeloMelo designate their parklet as a temporary structure, since that block of Pacific Avenue is still only temporarily closed to traffic.
“So we’re in a holding pattern now,” she writes. Even if they do pay for the review, “it’s still not a guarantee of permit approval.”
For the newly remodeled Planet Fresh Gourmet Burritos on the corner of Locust and Cedar streets, the subtle nuances of government bureaucracy are all too familiar. After the historic building was red-tagged, it took the owners—who also own the attached Red Room bar—two years to get the proper paperwork approved and make the necessary changes.
According to general manager Ganon Akin, reopening last year during the middle of the pandemic—when only to-go orders were allowed—actually made it easier because the restaurant was able to work out any problems with the menu and newly hired staff. Once outdoor dining was permitted, Planet Fresh owners set up one uncovered dining area on Cedar Street and another, covered one on Locust Street with pop-up canopies they purchased for $400 each.
“We had a tent cover for the Cedar Street side, but the city said it blocked the stop sign,” Akin says. “When we reopened the Red Room, I put a large, diamond ‘Stop Ahead’ sign in front of the water tank [anchors], but they still said we were blocking the sign.”
Another problem: the late-night liquor service permit. Although bars and restaurants are instructed to close their temporary pandemic patios by 10pm, it was that same exact time—pre-pandemic—when bars started making their money.
“So we were still paying the city for late-night liquor serving fees—which cost considerably more—they were making us sign something saying we couldn’t stay open past 10pm,” Akin says.
Even as restrictions on indoor dining loosen, Akin believes keeping the outdoor seating is a necessary part of post-pandemic dining.
“For people who don’t feel comfortable eating indoors it’s a great thing,” he says. “At this point, anything helps.”
Unitt says 80 businesses within Santa Cruz have made the move outdoors since June 2020, and the city is constantly updating the popular initiative. Since Nov. 4, no more than six patrons have been allowed at a table at once, to keep things Covid-19 compliant. While the new spaces are only allowed to operate until 10pm, any previously existing patio areas may continue to operate at pre-pandemic hours. The application and permitting process is free, although any establishment serving alcohol must have a special permit from the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), which costs $100 to apply for.
“We live in such a beautiful place, so it’s been exciting to explore more outdoor dining,” Unitt says. “Right now we’re looking into having more permanent parklets similar to what Hula’s and Lúpulo did prior to the street closure.”
On March 26, the city of Capitola announced it was also considering a permanent parklet program of its own for the Capitola Village area. Outside of the Village, restaurants who have temporary outdoor dining are using their parking property, but the exploratory permanent program will be specifically for the 47 city-owned parking spaces currently used by Village restaurants. Since the fledgling idea was just announced, officials estimate a more comprehensive report within six to eight weeks with more concrete costs and specifications.
“We do know the 47 spaces generate about $140,000 annually,” says Capitola Public Works Director Steven Jesberg. “So that’s where we’re starting and will try to recoup some of that if possible by giving the council several options.”
In South County, the city of Watsonville has been exploring the idea since November. The pilot program was temporarily put on hold when controversy surrounding the downtown George Washington bust took the forefront of the city’s agenda. Now, Watsonville officials say they are ready to move forward with transforming the downtown area into a more communal space for citizens and tourists to walk around and relax in.
“We’re currently having one of our engineers design the pilot parklet,” says Watsonville Assistant Engineer Christopher Gregorio.
Each parklet will cost roughly $10,000, and the city has already committed $65,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding. Gregorio says the city is currently waiting for the funding approval to go through to begin the building stage. Interested businesses can see if they’re currently eligible and apply for the parklet program through the Watsonville Public Works and Utilities Department. For business owners, it has the potential to transform how their customers view the historic city.
“We definitely take pride in our city,” says Brando Sencion, co-owner of the Slice Project pizzeria. “We want to represent what Watsonville is and the potential it has.”
He and business partner and brother Kristian Sencion will receive the pilot parklet when it’s complete. He admits if the program was implemented earlier on it would’ve made a big difference for the business during the early pandemic days. Still, Sencion is looking forward to hearing from the city on when construction will begin.
“We want it to be a space for people to come downtown and change the environment that we currently have,” he says.