Are Palm Canyon ‘parklets’ on the road to becoming permanent?

A parklet erected outside Lulu on Palm Canyon Drive allows for additional outdoor seating, a move especially important this past year when indoor dining was banned or limited.

Temporary outdoor structures designed to allow restaurants to keep serving customers during the pandemic may eventually become permanent in Downtown Palm Springs. Community members, city officials and businesses owners, however, are a long way from agreeing on whether that happens, and how.

“Parklets” — public seating platforms and other designs that convert curbside parking spaces into usable community spaces — were popular in many California cities prior to the pandemic. They were only allowed on Palm Canyon Drive last summer after state and local regulations forced dozens of restaurants to stop seating patrons inside.

Many cities that allowed parklets prior to the pandemic had time to solicit community input and craft specific regulations that, among other things, require them to be open to the public and meet certain design standards. Palm Springs, hoping to rush to the aid of many restaurant owners, offered some design guidelines, but did not require structures built by private businesses on public streets be open to the public.

The result was a mix of parklets taking over sidewalks and parking spaces along Palm Canyon Drive. While some restaurant owners built elaborately-designed structures, others simply placed plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk or designed structures that drew mixed reviews.

Perhaps more importantly, the fact many restaurants chain off their parklets and clear them of seating after restaurants close for the night didn’t sit well with the people paying for the streets those parklets sit on.

“I don’t believe it’s okay for any restaurant at this point to cause a street to close or take up free city taxpayer space,” said one resident in a discussion on a community Facebook page, where parklets are a hot topic. “It’s time for all the parklets to be removed.”

Unless the city acts soon, removal of the parklets is exactly what may take place after emergency rules that allowed them expire next month. The City Council plans to address parklets at its June 10 meeting, and could approve an extension on allowing them.

Legislation making its way through the State Capital, however, could buy the city even more time. As currently written, SB314, the “Bar and Restaurant Recovery Act,” makes emergency orders that allowed parklets in all California cities permanent.

Palm Springs elected officials said they are committed to allowing time for input from all in the community before making any long-term decision.

“We need to take time in the next year to do this the right way,” Councilmember Geoff Kors said during a Tuesday evening meeting of the city’s Business Retention/Economic Development Task Force, designed to begin the discussion on parklets. “Then we’re going to need a lot of input if we’re going to make any permanent change on Palm Canyon.”

Added Councilmember Dennis Woods: “We’ve tried them out during COVID and they seem to be effective and helped keep business alive and people like them. For the Council, we need to address how to make things equitable, the aesthetics, and the parking.”

Downtown business owners who spoke during the Zoom meeting Tuesday agreed taking time to build consensus is important if the city is to move forward with allowing parklets permanently. But not all agreed with Woods that they are well-received, especially without uniform design standards in place.

“I’m not opposed to parklets,” said Joy Brown Meredith, owner of Crystal Fantasy at 268 N Palm Canyon Dr. “I just don’t like the way a lot of them look. The basic idea of them is good, but there are a lot of rough edges around them and Palm Springs is better than what we’re seeing”

One parklet that may be a model of a design without those rough edges is the one outside Tac/Quila, 415 N Palm Canyon Dr. Owner Liz Ostoich said she has invested close to $80,000 on structures outside her restaurant since last summer. She plans to spend another $8,000 on misting to help keep diners in the parklets cool. The investment has been worth it, she said, as her restaurant often has a waiting list of diners eager to sit outside.

“Most customers prefer to sit in the parklets,” she said. “We’ve elected to spend a bunch of money on those. We didn’t want to do this and just throw something up.”

Other restaurant owners who spoke Tuesday evening shared similar success stories, adding that the city has the opportunity to transform its main street into a more walkable, enjoyable experience, which appeals to a new set of potential visitors clamoring to spend time in the city after the pandemic eases.

“We are an international city, and a destination for Europeans,” Ostoich said. “We are poised to take advantage of that. If we blow it they’re not going to come back.”

Some residents on Facebook agreed the parklets are helping transform Palm Canyon Drive.

“I feel like Palm Springs has come alive with the parklets,” one said. “And people feel safer outside (including me). I love how it feels European.”

Similar sentiments were echoed during the Tuesday meeting.

“I like the parklets in general,” said Jeffrey Bernstein, owner of retail store Destination PSP, 170 N Palm Canyon Dr.. “I think we have to decide as a community, as a city, what we want Palm Springs to be. The idea of being a place that has that European feel, or an outdoor feel already, the parklets seem to enhance that”

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