On Thursday May 18, 2023, the small gathering at the Helms Design Center on Washington Boulevard focused on a discussion of big things; pandemic silver linings, public space being used for private good, and whose right of way is it, anyway? The proliferation of sidewalk cafes, and tables taking over parking spaces, was debated from many angles. The conversation was hosted by the Westside Urban Forum, and moderated by Annette M. Kim, Ph.D, Associate Professor, USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
The panelists, Andrew Thomas, CEO, Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., Madeline Brozen, Deputy Director at the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, and John Keho, Director of Planning and Development Services for the City of West Hollywood, all cited that the lack of permits at the onset of the pandemic made it both simple and fast for restaurants to open out into public spaces. Allowing eateries to expand out into their own parking lots or public sidewalks allowed both the required social distancing and a bit of financial breathing room to attempt to survive the ‘stay at home’ orders.
Now that the Public Health Emergency was over, setting things into a more regulated form was creating challenges.
Thomas, who offered that he resides in Culver City, said that he loved the outdoor tables in downtown Culver City. “When I first experienced all that open space, I thought it was great. I’d really like to see all those restaurants keep those tables out. It makes for a great feeling, a very active and attractive public scene.”
Brozen also noted a positive side effect; “Outdoor tables are so much less noisy than being inside most restaurants, the ability to have a conversation with your meal, not having to shout at your companions, that is a real difference.”
The lack of regulation allowed many sidewalks and parking places to be built over quickly; changing habits now was proving a challenge. Keho noted that “Theses were allowed as temporary structures, and they’ve been up for three years, so, not really temporary at this point.”
The need to keep sidewalk access open was one that both Santa Monica and West Hollywood had grappled with, without coming to any solutions. The challenge of public space for private use also touched on the issue of homelessness. If it was okay for cafe owners to use the public right of way, was it also okay for an individual to set up housekeeping? Again, everyone offered that it was a concern, and no one had a definitive answer.
The change in attitude towards parking was also discussed. When Keho noted that the City of West Hollywood did not have “really any public blowback on losing these parking spaces,” Brozen laughed, “Who could have imagined that sentence, even five years ago? We are living in a different world.”