Officials in Solana Beach are continuing to work on a permanent outdoor dining policy that will allow businesses to flourish while also preventing negative impacts on parking, public access and cleanliness.
Like many cities, Solana Beach has embraced the popularity of outdoor dining beyond its use as a COVID-19 safety measure. The city has issued 24 temporary use permits for outdoor dining in the past three years, and several restaurants continue to offer this type of dining, including Pillbox Tavern, Naked Cafe, Station Sushi, Parioli Italian Bistro, Lofty Coffee, Pizza Port, Crust, Claire’s on Cedros, and T’s Cafe.
After the city agreed last November to work on a permanent policy for outdoor eating areas, staff proposed a proposed ordinance to the Solana Beach City Council on Oct. 25 that would allow businesses to continue outdoor dining operations by obtaining a conditional use permit.
The ordinance would also require clear right-of-way on sidewalks, daily and weekly cleaning protocols for outdoor spaces, and limiting the size of the outdoor dining area based on the size of the existing indoor space.
During the discussion, the council and community members strongly supported outdoor eating areas and requested that they be maintained. However, the council also said regulations are needed to protect the public right of way and prevent other issues.
“We heard a lot from the public, and most of it is in favor of keeping outdoor dining. What we have to do is figure out how to do that in a manner that is both aesthetically pleasing, improves the city, helps businesses, but doesn’t harm access to the beach or other businesses,” said Mayor Lesa Heebner.
The proposed ordinance suggested that the size of outdoor dining spaces should not exceed 50% of the total indoor space. However, because of the needs of different businesses, the council said they would like to explore a sliding scale for the ratio of indoor to outdoor space and decided to bring back the ordinance later.
Under the ordinance, restaurants seeking to offer outdoor dining would be required to apply for a conditional use permit before the end of 2023 to replace the temporary use permits that have been in place since early in the pandemic and are set to expire.
Businesses already offering outdoor dining under an existing permit would pay a fee of around $2,700, while a permit for a new outdoor dining area would cost about $4,500.
Council members said they would also like to see structures such as fences or barriers be more compatible and harmonious with neighboring design features and not appear “slapdash” or carelessly put together.
“We have a chance to do better so that it improves the look of our city,” said Councilmember Jewel Edson.
Protecting public parking spaces is also a concern. Pillbox Tavern along Plaza Street currently uses a handful of public parking spaces for its outdoor dining area, a wooden fenced-in patio area with tables directly in front of the restaurant.
Pillbox co-owner Ryan Jones said the patio’s versatility has been amazing and claimed it has brought in extra revenue, allowing the restaurant to hire at least eight additional staff and sponsor local sports teams. He urged the city not to do away with outdoor dining.
“Three and a half years ago, when the chaos of COVID hit, it was absolutely frightening as a small business owner in so many ways,” Jones said. “These patios have been a godsend in so many ways. We have an amazing following of regulars at Pillbox.”
However, the resulting decrease in available parking at the shopping center has caused some strife. David Urich, owner of Urich Dental next door, said there is sometimes no space for his patients to park.
Urich said he is not opposed to Pillbox’s outdoor dining space but requested that the city allow him to place “reserved” signs on the three spaces in front of his business. Officials declined, stating that public parking cannot be reserved.
“Our hope is that many of the restaurants don’t change their area from what they have now as much as possible, but that we, at the same time, balance parking for other businesses,” Heebner said.
Mike Garcia, Pillbox co-owner with Jones, also opened the Saddle Bar two doors down in the same shopping plaza. While the bar used to have an outdoor seating area in public parking spaces similar to Pillbox, city officials said that space has since been removed as it did not qualify.
Out of business
City leaders said it is essential to support eateries, as residents have watched several restaurants close in the past year that previously offered outdoor dining.
Among the businesses that have closed their doors in the past few months are the iconic Tidewater Tavern along North Coast Highway 101, which closed due to the owner’s retirement after nearly 30 years; ALCE 101, which opened just three years ago (also on the 101); and Homestead Cafe on Cedros Avenue, which struggled to remain open during COVID after it came on the scene in 2019.
Councilmember Dave Zito said the city has difficulty maintaining restaurants and emphasized the importance of finding ways to support them and ensure they can succeed.
“Restaurants are a very fine-margin business. They can be a challenge under the best of times,” said Zito.
Solana Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jamie Johnson said there is no one reason why some restaurants might not make it in the city and that eateries in all areas are facing challenges like high rent, inflation, and staffing shortages.
“I do know that with Solana Beach, we only have so much land and there’s only so much property that we have… and like most coastal cities, you have the parking challenges as well,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough time right now, but at the same time, there’s a lot of optimism. We’re coming together as a community to find ways to support each other.”