City refines process for approving cafes

DEL MAR — Despite requests from some residents, City Council members unanimously agreed at the Sept. 21 meeting not to make major changes to the streamlined permit process they created for sidewalk cafe approvals.
In August 2008, council combined the encroachment, operation and design review permits into a one-stop permit process for applicants seeking to add outdoor dining areas. Design Review Board approval was not required.
Between January and April 2009, permits were conditionally approved for six cafes, five of which have been built. In each case, design details were presented in a public hearing.
Two months later, at the June 8 council meeting, with construction well under way, about a dozen residents voiced concerns about the size of the cafes on 15th Street. Some asked that work be halted immediately. Most who spoke were upset with the approval process, especially the lack of DRB input.
At a follow-up meeting one week later, nearly three dozen people addressed council, most speaking in favor of the cafes. The city also received about 180 e-mails supporting the projects. Council members opted to wait until the cafes were built and in use before addressing the issues raised.
Since then, interim Planning Director Brian Mooney conducted community outreach via e-mail and conversations with residents, including those who opposed the cafes at the June 8 meeting. At the Sept. 21 meeting, he reported that the overall comments were positive, although there was still some concern about the review process. He also said the area is much more accessible to people with disabilities and restaurant owners have reported a “significant increase in sales.”
Only three people addressed council on the subject during the most recent meeting. Resident Rick Ehrenfeld said he was “sort of fooled a little bit” by the designs. “I hate to admit that,” he said, adding that he envisioned European-style outdoor cafes with small tables and chairs that are easily removed.
“So I was a little taken aback when I saw the scope of these projects,” Ehrenfeld said. “That’s my fault.” He said he’d like to see the DRB returned to the process, especially for larger, more permanent structures like the ones on 15th Street.
“We’re missing such a great opportunity to have people’s input on these projects,” he said. “I’d like to see the collective mind of Del Mar applied to these projects because I think they can be better.”
Tensia Trejo, on the other hand, thanked the council for getting the cafes built. “I think the problem is, while the DRB has done a lot of great things, it just takes too long,” she said. “You can sink if you don’t fix your boat in time.” Trejo said people have called her to tell her they like the cafes. “These are the people who come in and leave us their money,” she said. “The people are enjoying it. Let’s just move on and concentrate on something else.”
Councilman Don Mosier said although the cafes are not perfect, he thought they were working well. He suggested creating design guidelines that weren’t too constraining and agreed with Ehrenfeld that the DRB should provide input for larger, more permanent structures.
“We need to be a little more careful with the process,” he said. “We need to make sure they get it right the first time and we need to engage the help of the Design Review Board.
“The DRB process is not broken. It’s served Del Mar well over the years,” Mosier said. “If it costs one month to get a better project the city’s going to have to live with … for years, then that one month of investment is a good investment.”
Councilman Carl Hilliard disagreed. “If we had gone the DRB route, these sidewalk cafes never would have happened … because the DRB process doesn’t work for downtown,” he said.
Council members agreed the sidewalk should have been a bit wider by Del Mar Pizza, although Mayor Crystal Crawford said she observed that “choke point” and deemed pedestrian flow not much worse than it was before the cafe was built.
Council was also unanimous in the belief that the cafes on 15th Street couldn’t have been built too much differently given the slope of the street and the requirement to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They also agreed there were few other areas in town where those issues would create problems.
Rather than change the streamlined process, council members opted to refine it. They directed staff to create additional design guidelines. Mosier and Mark Filanc, the council subcommittee, will review plans. Tape will be used to measure pedestrian flow — similar to the way story poles are used to measure height — before a project is built.
“I don’t want to fix what I don’t think is broken,” Councilman Richard Earnest said.

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