Eateries unequal

City Council tackles inconsistent policy on outdoor restaurant patios

With the Chico City Council’s green light, a San Francisco-style parklet is set to replace this bike rack in front of Starbucks on Broadway.

With the Chico City Council’s green light, a San Francisco-style parklet is set to replace this bike rack in front of Starbucks on Broadway.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Warm nights, cold drinks and top-notch people-watching make it easy to understand why downtown Chico’s outdoor dining scene is burgeoning. About a dozen restaurant patios are currently open, coming soon or in the planning stages. The city’s policy for approving those spaces, however, is difficult to follow, and crafting a consistent one was the subject of discussion during the Chico City Council meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 6).

For example, the Starbucks at Broadway and Third streets recently applied for a permit to build a patio, but on Aug. 2 the city’s Public Works Department denied it based on two factors. For one, the infrastructure as proposed would block stormwater drainage. Further, city code doesn’t allow for outdoor dining areas at establishments that aren’t traditional sit-down restaurants.

“Outdoor cafes shall only be used for sit-down food and beverage service where payment is made for the food and beverages after consumption,” it reads. “No stand-up or take-out service shall be permitted in the outdoor cafe area.”

That section of code was crafted to prevent every downtown restaurant from setting up shop on the sidewalk, said Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s director of public works-engineering. But here’s the rub: Another nearby business with a similar model—Jamba Juice at Second and Broadway streets—did get the city’s approval to build a patio, and is currently working on just that. And other eateries, such as Celestino’s New York Pizza, already have patios and don’t fit that criteria.

When pressed by Mayor Mark Sorensen on why some grab-and-go eateries were allowed to build outdoor dining areas, Ottoboni was at a loss.

“That’s a good question,” he said of Jamba Juice specifically. “I came in at the tail end of it. It was in the works when I officially took over and had already essentially been approved.”

Starbucks’ proposal on Broadway isn’t to build a typical patio—it’s a parklet. Yumi Ohon, a representative from Starbucks, is working with a design team to create it, and made the trip from San Francisco to explain the concept to the council.

Parklets first popped up in San Francisco in 2010 as partnerships between the city and local businesses, she said. They’re micro-parks that usually replace parking spaces, extending from the sidewalk and offering green areas with grass or plant boxes and seating for pedestrians.

“There’s landscaping, a bench, a built-in shelf which becomes an ADA-accessible table,” Ohon said. “We want the outside seating to be utilized by the public, as well. This isn’t just for the cafe’s use.”

Starbucks hasn’t built parklets elsewhere, Ohon said, but the company wants one in downtown Chico due to the cafe’s proximity to Chico State and the steady foot and bicycle traffic. In this case, the parklet wouldn’t replace a parking space, but instead would take the spot of the street-level bike rack out front—a new rack would be built on the sidewalk. And the cafe, not the city, would be responsible for the parklet’s maintenance, Ohon said.

Vice Mayor Sean Morgan was sold. “I like it; I think it’s neat,” he said. “This fits in perfectly with where [downtown is] headed and doesn’t affect anything in a negative way.”

Councilwoman Reanette Fillmer agreed. She made a motion to overturn the city’s denial of Starbucks’ application and approve the parklet project. Sorensen made an amendment that Starbucks must resolve the storm drainage issue, and the motion passed 4-2, with Councilman Randall Stone and Councilwoman Tami Ritter dissenting. (Councilwoman Ann Schwab recused herself from the discussion because she owns a downtown business.)

Sorensen said he reluctantly voted in favor of Fillmer’s motion. “I’d rather we have an ordinance that sets forth the guidelines and we’re able to follow them,” he said, “rather than addressing them piecemeal.”

Later in the meeting, at Sorensen’s request, the council had a more general discussion of outdoor dining downtown that focused on how restaurants’ expansion onto the sidewalk affects streetside parking.

During the public comment portion, parking advocate Mike Trolinder asked the panel to consider downtown parking spaces as an economic resource. Tom DiGiovanni, president of New Urban Builders, urged the council to craft a sound policy on outdoor dining based on the best practices of other cities.

“There has been a terrific increase of outdoor eating establishments,” DiGiovanni said, “and if we’re not careful, there will be an erosion of parking supply on key streets downtown.”

Ultimately, the council voted 6-0—Schwab again recused herself—to direct staff to review the section of code on outdoor dining. After consulting with members of the volunteer-based Parking/Access Resource Committee, Ottoboni will return with possible revisions in October.

Melanie Bassett, executive director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, spoke in support of applying the same standards across the board.

“Obviously, we love the expanded outdoor dining, but there have been inconsistencies and that doesn’t make sense,” she said. “That does need to be looked at.”