What Happened to Downtown San Mateo's parklets?

November 15, 2022 - -

This summer, I published my first op-ed in the San Mateo Daily Journal, I researched, What Happened to Downtown San Mateo’s parklets. I’ve reprinted it below for posterity.

The pandemic has been horrible, but it did bring a few silver linings. One of them was the proliferation of parklets. These small outdoor decks in a restaurant’s adjacent parking spaces were a lifeline when indoor access was prohibited. Parklets proved to be popular even as indoor dining was starting to be permissible in the last year. In San Mateo, it was nearly impossible not to see a jubilant crowd having a drink outside of Wursthall, or hungry patrons enjoying a meal in the enclosed decks in front of Gao Viet Kitchen or Izakaya Mai.

So, if they were that popular, where did they all go?

The closed blocks on B Street have their own set of rules: they cannot have permanent structures, but they can have outdoor tables and chairs, and many restaurants are taking advantage. Businesses along the remaining downtown streets can have more permanent structures in their parking spaces for a small fee if they adhere to the San Mateo Parklet Guidelines.

It’s been months since these guidelines have gone into effect, and parklets have sadly dried up. Meanwhile, our neighbors in Burlingame, San Carlos and Redwood City extended their current outdoor program throughout most of the year, and have significantly more outdoor dining spaces. Given the beautiful summer weather, I was curious if more San Mateo parklets were in the works. I contacted more than 25 downtown San Mateo restaurants that once had outdoor dining available and asked if they had any plans to bring them back. I received responses from over half the participants.

Of these 25 outside-enthusiast restaurants, only four have available parklets, a paltry 16%. Avenida and Sajj each have a parklet, while Avocado Toast and 3 Bees Coffee share one. There are four additional restaurants that have either submitted permits, or plan to soon, raising the participation rate up to 32% among restaurants that used to have outdoor patio space. However, one doesn’t expect theirs to be ready until next year, and another is substantially reduced from last year’s peak.

After exchanging emails with several restaurant proprietors, a few key problems repeatedly came up, resulting in stalled or abandoned parklets. In several cases, restaurants were waiting several weeks just for communication from the permit office. One restaurant informed me that they had submitted their application and had not received any response for four weeks. This became a recurring theme for other restaurants at every stage of development including plan approval, various intermediate steps, and even waiting for final approval after construction had completed.

Other restaurants were victim to some of the guidelines’ onerous, confusing restrictions. Corner restaurants are mysteriously prohibited from having two parklets and must set back their parklet an absurd 25 feet from the corner.

Other respondents seemed confused by their outdoor parklet options, claiming that there was nothing they could do, or that outdoor dining was only permissible on B Street. Some of this confusion was compounded by the multilingual nature of our community. English is often a second language for our business owners, which leads to a communication barrier especially when required to navigate complex permit policy.

After communicating with several of these businesses, it’s clear they feel that the city has effectively been working against them instead of working with them. It was easy to see a distinct sense of frustration and exhaustion from restaurant owners. “The city made us take down our parklet,” was a common message. One business pointed out that “Burlingame and San Carlos allowed restaurant parklets until 2023. Our business dropped about 20% or more.” After thanking me for my support, they added, “We don’t have [support] from the city.”

Personally, I like patronizing local businesses, and I enjoy dining outdoors in one of the most pleasant year-round climates in the country. Patios and parklets for dozens of people are a much better use of space than parking for a few cars, especially with several nearby parking garages and new ones under construction. They contribute greatly to the vitality and energy of the city, and are good for the restaurant’s bottom line.

And finally, the pandemic is not over. New COVID variants have increased contagiousness, and many of us, particularly those who are immunocompromised, remain uncomfortable dining in smaller indoor venues.

At their best, guidelines provide clarity, set expectations and help speed up processes. But, it’s clear San Mateo’s parklet guidelines are overreaching and require iteration. It’s great to see the parklets remain in neighboring cities like Burlingame, San Carlos and Redwood City, and it’s disappointing to see San Mateo needlessly fall behind. Fortunately, these problems can be solved. I hope the City Council, whether it’s this one or the next one, is willing to do so.

Jonathan New has been a resident of San Mateo for over 15 years and is a member of Peninsula for Everyone and Move San Mateo.