Monday evening, the West Hollywood City Council was presented with a proposed change to the municipal code that would make its COVID-era outdoor dining availability a permanent fixture in the city.

John Keho, the city’s Director of Planning and Development Services, summarized a 14-page staff report and presented the following recommendations to the council that they should:

  • Adopt an ordinance amending Chapter 11.28 of the West Hollywood Municipal Code regarding outdoor dining in the public right of way
  • Authorize the Director of Finance & Technology Services to allocate $25,000 from unallocated reserves in General Fund for the development of the Outdoor Dining Eligibility and Site Design Guide and related costs
  • Provide any feedback, if necessary, on the proposed updates, including the eligibility criteria and design standards
    • The staff presentation spoke of a “unified vision for the public realm” with regard to outdoor dining

The emergency ordinance was adopted in June 2020 in response to the COVID Pandemic. Under this ordinance, parking requirements and permitting fees are waived, and sidewalk requirements are reduced to four feet in width for pedestrians. The city council moved to make some of these measures permanent beginning in 2021, including reduced parking requirements and allowing some public parking lots to be used for outdoor dining, or “Outzones” as they have been dubbed by city staff. The permitting process for outdoor dining that included alcohol was also streamlined.

Under the new proposal, design guidelines and some other requirements would be increased, necessitating a grace period the staff proposes of December 31 for businesses to enhance their outdoor dining spaces to meet new guidelines or to be disassembled. In addition, by year’s end, the city would require outdoor dining that was allowed to take place in front of neighboring businesses to a given eatery to end.

Ric Abramson, the city’s Manager of the Urban Design and Architectural Studio (UDAS), clarified that “Most of what we see now would not be seen in the permanent program, whether it’s in their footprints, their sighting, or their aesthetics.” He also said that many groups were consulted for their input on the new permanent standards, including the city’s Transportation Commission, Senior Advisory Board, Disabilities Advisory Board, the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, and several Outzone businesses.

Sidewalk conditions were something that received a great deal of consideration. The staff proposed separate sidewalk requirements for a variety of conditions. For narrow sidewalks with less than 12 feet of width, staff recommended dining only be allowed in parking spaces and between tree wells. For moderately sized sidewalks between 12-19 feet in width, outdoor dining only be allowed immediately in front of existing business frontage, or between tree wells if placed in business frontage, with no parking space dining. For wider sidewalks greater than 19 feet in width, dining would only be allowed immediately in front of existing business frontage, and again, no parking space dining. In moderate sidewalk spaces, the pedestrian clearing would be increased from four to six feet and in wider sidewalks, it would be increased from four to eight feet.

Councilmember John Erickson asked if cleanliness guidelines would be added for outdoor dining spaces as well, citing that he’s seen them become dirty and subject to broken glass. Jackie Rocco, the Deputy City Manager, said they already exist as a condition of the permits businesses seek to participate. She explained that enforcement comes in the form of spot inspections and reports from customers.

Not everyone favors making this kind of outdoor dining permanent. Resident Manny Rodriguez, speaking before the council, said, “Outzones were developed during the Pandemic as a way to triage a very challenging time, a time when no one was allowed inside. We can go inside now.” He was also critical of Outzones taking up short-term parking on Santa Monica Blvd. in town, as most of the businesses in the business district aren’t bars or restaurants and should be returned to residents and visitors.

Several speakers gave thanks for their ability to make deals with neighboring businesses to allow their outdoor dining to bleed into their store frontage, and pleaded with the council to codify their ability to do that, which the new guidelines as presented do not.

Councilmember Lauren Meister expressed concerns about what sidewalk length would remain, saying the suggestion that the four-foot width for pedestrians be maintained is just “selfish.” She also commented, that years ago when sidewalks were widened in the Rainbow District, it was done so in part “To give pedestrians more space to walk.” She added, “Especially in the Rainbow District where it gets extremely crowded on a Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday. It’s really important that that space be maintained.” Meister also declared she’s not in favor of Outzones in the roadway, as it not only eliminates spaces for parking, but for drop off, as well as limiting alternate mobility options.

After Councilmember Chelsea Byers, Erickson, and Mayor Sepi Shyne all expressed support for businesses still being allowed to negotiate with neighboring businesses to use some of their frontages, Deputy City Manager Rocco cautioned that there is nothing stopping a new tenants from replacing their neighbor and saying they won’t honor the agreement after the restaurant spent all that money to use their departed neighbor’s space.

Ultimately, as nicely summarized by Councilmember John Heilman in his motion to approve, the council was doing so with the consensus that among those who support the proposed new guidelines, they would be voting to do so with the understanding that the city attorney would work on an amendment allowing businesses to create agreements with neighboring businesses. Also, a majority of three councilmembers support continued use of parking spaces, but only where narrow sidewalks exist, and that there was consensus agreement that more work would be done to further streamline the permitting process.

The new guidelines, with those understandings, passed 4-1, with Meister opposed.

Photo by Renata Tyburczy

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