Tracy downtown restaurants’ transition to outdoor dining last year was a way for local businesses to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the open-air restaurant trend has taken hold, the city of Tracy hopes to make it a permanent feature of downtown.
On Tuesday the Tracy City Council began to establish a new set of rules that could allow restaurant owners to convert parking spaces in front of their businesses into dining patios.
On a unanimous vote the council introduced an ordinance that will establish the downtown “parklet” program, and also set aside federal COVID-19 relief funds to help businesses convert parking spaces into parklets.
It is effectively an extension of the agreement that the city established with the Tracy City Center Association in June and July of 2020, when the city first allowed restaurants to use the public right-of-way on 10th Street, Sixth Street and Central Avenue for their businesses. That included the “streatery” along 10th Street between B Street and Central Avenue, where the city put up barriers along the middle of 10th Street, leaving the southern eastbound lane open as a one-way street, while the lane on the north side of the street was converted for outdoor dining.
This past June, after restaurants could allow diners indoors again, TCCA asked the city to extend the streatery permit for 4 months with the idea that the association would work with the city to create a system to allow outdoor dining for the long term.
Tracy Economic Development Manager Michael Nimon and Senior Planner Scott Claar told the council on Tuesday that the proposed ordinance before the council would be a step toward that goal.
“In the initial conversations with TCCA parklets were identified as a favorable opportunity as opposed to the current ‘streatery’ concept, which has been very well-received by the public,” Claar said. “It also introduced some potential objections from merchants downtown because it was taking away the parking and also, in some cases, blocking the view of those merchants’ storefronts.”
The parklets, he said, would be directly in front of the restaurants they serve. Claar showed the council a proposed design, which, subject to approval from the city’s development services department, could have concrete planters as barriers between dining areas and the street, and movable barriers, such as crowd-control fences, along the sides.
Nimon explained the grant program, which takes $500,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act that brought $4.5 million to the city for COVID-19 relief for businesses. Parklet designs that council reviewed on Tuesday would cost about $20,000, though Nimon said businesses could apply for up to $50,000 for their parklets, which would come as a reimbursement after a business builds its parklet.
“This is kind of the first bite at that funding, at that grand funding for economic development purposes, to help restaurants recover,” Nimon told the council. Part of the grant would also pay for at least one accessible parking space consistent with the American with Disabilities Act requirements.
Dino Margaros, executive director of TCCA, told the council that the idea of outdoor dining predates COVID-19 by about 5 years, but the pandemic gave the matter a sense of urgency as early quarantine restrictions prohibited indoor gatherings. Now that restaurants are fully open again, he urged the city to consider the long term.
“If something good comes out of COVID, outdoor dining is going to be one of those things,” he said. “It’s critical that we get this right.”
He added that the streatery was accomplished quickly with the help of the city, which contributed $24,000 toward the water-filled barricades, and business partners like Tracy Hills and Prologis, which contributed another $30,000.
“That absolutely had its intended effect. We didn’t lose any restaurants in all of downtown and specifically along 10th Street, where I think we otherwise would have if they didn’t have that opportunity,” he added. “I think we can go forward and look at outdoor dining as a permanent fixture.”
Mike Trotter, owner of Town and Country Café on 10th Street, agreed that implementation of the idea during the pandemic kept the public interested in downtown. He added that the streatery permit should be extended until the end of the year while details of the parklet program are worked out.
“I just don’t think that there is enough time to get something in place,” he said. “There are too many variables that haven’t been ironed out yet.”
Mayor Pro Tem Veronica Vargas agreed with members of the public who said the city should go for designs that have more visual appeal than crowd-control fencing would provide, but otherwise supported city staff’s design suggestions.
“I like the idea that we’re here with a template to get ready,” she said. She also advocated for extending the streatery permit until the end of the year.
Mayor Nancy Young also asked for designs that would have more visual appeal than the crowd control fencing, and Interim City Manager Bob Adams replied that it’s a low-cost option, and other options will likely be available.
“Let’s talk to the community that’s affected and we’ll come back with recommendations on that,” Adams said.
City Attorney Leticia Ramirez reminded that council that only the ordinance and financial support for parklets, but not extension of the previous streatery permit, was included on the agenda and could be voted on. She added that if it’s not something that city staff could do on its own, she would bring the permit extension back to the council.
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