In the wake of new restrictions on the number of people allowed to dine inside restaurants in the wake of Covid-19, a daring new experiment is underway to safely expand their capacity. Streets in Downtown, North Park, and throughout San Diego are expected to close to some car traffic to expand the footprint of restaurant patios into the sidewalk, parking spaces and roadway.
Already, Achilles Coffee Roasters in Cortez Hill has a pilot program underway. On the first weekend in June, a parking lane outside of the coffee place was emptied so it could be used as a waiting and seating area.
Achilles’ new waiting areas is the first of many proposals to repurpose public spaces to enable small businesses to survive the pandemic. In response, the city of San Diego pledged to expedite the permit process so the pilot programs can be approved quickly.
Similar initiatives are planned in other neighborhoods. North Park Main Street proposed closing two blocks of 30th Street from Polk to University avenues. Restaurants along the route include Redwing Bar and Grill, Lucha Libre Taco Shop and Crazee Burger.
Main Street executive director Angela Landsberg said the initiative would be a two-week pilot program that could be evaluated and amended as needed. There is an emergency lane penciled into the current plans, but it is not wide enough for buses, so MTS buses will be diverted to side streets.
Landsberg said in a meeting of the North Park Planners that all of the business owners impacted by the street closure are in favor of the plan as a way to keep small businesses afloat. Assembly member Todd Gloria joined the Zoom meeting and said he supported the plan. The North Park Planners unanimously voted to support the initiative.
“The inconvenience is worth it. It’s not going to be worth sacrificing all those businesses for the convenience,” board member Matt Stucky said.
North Park’s plan is to close off the street for the entire day, but in Downtown the majority of the proposals would close off the public space just for weekends and other limited times except in Cortez.
“This program will extend the dining and working and social opportunities for all of our residents Downtown. We want to support the businesses all over Downtown. A lot of them are mom and pop shops and actual residents themselves of our community,” San Diego Downtown Partnership president and CEO Betsy Brennan said. “The more we can do to support the gradual return to business, the better.”
While the Downtown and North Park pilot programs complement each other, they differ in key ways.
Landsberg said the 30th Street program is not meant to be a place where people linger, so the high turnover could lower risk of infection and ensure restaurants had as many people as possible. Downtown Partnership has proposed the opposite: they intend to add live music, art and entertainment to the closed streets which could help out-of-work artists.
“It’s a festive environment while still maintaining proper physical distancing,” Brennan said.
Unlike North Park, which proposed a two-week pilot program, Brennan said they will evaluate the pilot program throughout the process and make changes as needed since no one knows how long the pandemic will last.
“But if some of these needs to be pivoted or changed in some way we will have the ability to do that,” Brennan said.
Downtown Partnership listed several potential locations for the endeavor they are calling Curbside San Diego. Gaslamp Quarter, East Village and Columbia could see street closures during the weekend. India Street in Little Italy would be closed just on Saturdays. City Center would offer the expanded dining and entertainment area on weekdays while Cortez would be the only place constantly closed.
MTS would still have access to its typical routes in Gaslamp through a safety lane, and in the other neighborhoods only one or two blocks will be affected. Bike corrals are being added to many of the areas so people can travel via bicycle and side streets remain open for pick-up and drop-off of passengers.
“This is a trend that’s sweeping the nation to support our businesses and residents. We want to be at the forefront of that, especially with our wonderful weather and our walkable Downtown. We hope to get some of these pilots out in the streets by sometime in June,” Brennan said.
So far, the only pilot program to launch is in Cortez Hill, but there are likely more to come as permits are approved.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at [email protected].