Proliferation of streetside patios at downtown restaurants surprisingly noncontroversial
When Christian Steinbach came to Chico in 1998 to open his eponymous eatery, Christian Michaels, he had no idea he was a dozen years ahead of his time.
He envisioned a downtown establishment much like he’d seen where he was from, the Bay Area. Patrons, many with shopping bags in hand, would approach and see a choice of seating: restaurant, bar or patio.
Christian Michaels has had the first two, but not the third—Steinbach said officials at City Hall and Butte County Public Health at the time nixed the notion of serving outdoors. So he’s operated without a patio, his restaurant instead becoming a more subtle landmark on the Wall Street entryway to downtown.
Outside seating for diners, he says, “shows a lively downtown. It makes people want to come downtown. That’s the one thing Walnut Creek proved—downtown Walnut Creek, they call it ‘the Little City’ now [because] owners of restaurants from San Francisco now have restaurants in Walnut Creek [after] the city put in the fencing, put in the plants, watered the plants and did all the work.
“It revitalized their downtown, and they have an epic downtown.”
Dual-environment dining finally took root in Chico when Tres Hombres—at the campus-side gateway—unveiled downtown’s first bulb-out corner patio in 2010. Since then, several more have opened, and a flurry of others are underway (see info box).
One will be at Christian Michaels: Steinbach, whose middle name is Michael, said he hopes to have a patio built this year. He’d commissioned schematics in 2013, when the city planned to help with a bulb-out at his corner, but shelved the project when budget cuts included staff contraction in the Planning Department.
“It’s something I want,” he said, even though it’s a $100,000 upgrade to a building he doesn’t own.
Patios have made a significant mark on downtown, yet—apart from construction noise—the change has come silently. Planning officials say groups such as the Downtown Chico Business Association and Parking Access Resource Commission hear in advance about potential projects; no surprises, no objections.
The proliferation this year raises a fresh question: Can there be too much of a good thing? Or, as the CN&R queried: Could Chico reach “peak patio”?
The Chico Municipal Code lists no limit, so the answer depends on whom you ask.
“I imagine there could be,” senior planner Bob Summerville said. “As planners, we really welcome them, because the downtown element of our general plan encourages them. I think the parking issue is really the only problem; otherwise, the nightlife, the positive streetscape influence, the positive pedestrian influence—it’s great.”
Steinbach agrees: Apart from possibly impacting parking or impeding traffic flow, he sees only positives in adding outdoor seating.
Street issues have not arisen, perhaps because the ordinance permitting patios has specific restrictions.
First, bulb-out patios are supposed to be on corners, not mid-block. LaSalles is located next to a driveway; otherwise, every other project that’s received approval is at an intersection.
“I could see a problem with traffic flow,” Summerville said. “When you have an obstruction into a drive lane, even for the bicyclists who may have to swerve out, I guess that could be a physical problem.”
Woodstock’s Pizza, located on Second Street between Main and Wall, had its plans kicked back by city planners—but for a different reason, and regulation.
“You can’t take away diagonal parking,” said Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s director of public works-engineering. “What we’ve worked out is a way for them to bulb out and create a compact stall and still be able to achieve enough ADA clearance for [pedestrians with disabilities on] the sidewalk.”
The corner bulb-outs can replace two spaces, as long as the spaces haven’t been reserved for disabled drivers. Restaurants must reimburse the city for lost parking-meter income, currently around $600 per year per space. The lost parking itself is a miniscule proportion of spaces.
“There are bigger concerns [about] parking downtown than just taking away a couple stalls here or there,” Ottoboni said.
The city handles permits for patios administratively. The approval process includes just one panel: the Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board. The Planning Commission is never involved. The avenue for appeal leads straight to the City Council.
Aaron Smith, general manager at Mom’s Restaurant the past year and a half, inherited an established patio especially popular on temperate weekend mornings.
“A lot of patio people are a different kind of customer: They’re not in a hurry, they want to go out and relax, enjoy the weather and have a nice meal,” he said.
Steinbach of Christian Michaels said patios add to the aesthetic of downtown. Even on a hot summer day, when no one wants to eat outside, exterior seating designs catch the eye of passersby.
“I’d love to see Rawbar have it,” he said. “What a great opportunity: You could have an Asian bistro patio lunch one day; a couple days later, if you’re coming downtown with a couple friends, you could have some Mexican food [at Tres]; and then we have our small plates and the fine dining side, if it’s a nice evening and you want a meal in the open air.”
From the City Hall point of view, peak patio would be “a good problem to have, obviously, from the economic development perspective,” Ottoboni said. “In theory, yeah, there could be too much. What that threshhold is, not too sure.”