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Monday, Feb 6, 2023
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Eateries Seek to Curb Sidewalk Dining Rules

Restaurant operators are throwing their industry’s regional economic clout behind a proposal to streamline the approval of sidewalk dining spaces in the city of San Diego.

The California Restaurant Association’s San Diego Chapter recently released a report, based on data compiled by the locally based National University System Institute for Policy Research, noting that restaurants in the city generated an estimated $2.98 billion in taxable sales during 2012.

Researchers said restaurants are the largest contributor of taxable retail sales in the city of San Diego, with every dollar spent in its 3,315 restaurants generating an additional 63 cents for the overall economy thanks to ripple spending effects.

Restaurants employ 51,717 people in the city and nearly one of every 12 workers in San Diego County, the report said.

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The data was released as local restaurateurs announced their support for measures being reviewed by city officials in coming weeks, rolling back some regulations and cutting fees associated with adding sidewalk cafes and other outdoor dining spaces to existing restaurants.

Current city regulations require many restaurant owners to pay between $8,000 and $10,000 in various permit fees and deposits, as part of a frequently lengthy review and approval process for adding outdoor dining. Those costs are on top of the business owner’s construction costs for expanding the eating space, and can prove prohibitive for smaller operators.

An ‘Onerous’ Process

“The process has been onerous and expensive, and has made some owners just want to give up on setting up outside tables,” said San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who supports the proposed changes. “It’s really been more complicated than it needs to be.”

A proposal being considered by the city’s Planning Commission in late February, and likely to go before City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee in March, establishes a new “sidewalk café” option, allowing a restaurant to add a single row of tables that extends no more than 4.5 feet from the restaurant building and leaves at least 4.5 feet of unobstructed space on the sidewalk for passersby.

Operators applying for the single-row set-up would pay a one-time fee which is still being finalized by officials, but would likely range from $100 to $200. Establishments selling alcohol would also be required to put up a rope or other type of barrier to separate restaurant patrons from the general sidewalk traffic.

The changes have been supported publicly by Zapf and fellow councilmembers Todd Gloria and Kevin Faulconer. Zapf said she heard over the past several months from the restaurant industry and business operators in her District 6 communities about longtime challenges they were facing in making additions to their restaurants. While sidewalk dining has become commonplace in neighborhoods like downtown and La Jolla, supporters of reforms say existing rules and fees have created difficulties for small operators in places such as Mission Hills and Ocean Beach.

“This way, everybody gets treated equally,” Zapf said.

Steven Yeng, owner of OB Noodle House in Ocean Beach, said operators in that neighborhood often face permit costs for outdoor dining expansions that range from $12,000 to nearly $15,000. That’s partly because oceanfront areas face an added layer of renovation approvals by the California Coastal Commission.

The Ocean Beach native said he has been trying to get the numbers to work for an outdoor expansion for four of the past five years that his Cable Street eatery has been in business. A streamlining of city rules would allow him to feasibly add enough tables outside to alleviate his customers’ frequent two-hour wait times on Friday and Saturday nights.

A Boost to Sales

Yeng estimated that the ability of his 20-worker staff to serve more patrons would generate an additional $9,000 in sales taxes for the city from his restaurant alone.

“Just having that extra 112 square feet outside is going to make a huge difference for my business,” Yeng said. “The city would be collecting lower fees upfront from businesses with these new laws, but in the long run it’s going to help the city.”

The proposed changes are expected to go before the full City Council in April, and Zapf said proponents would like to see it pass in time for the summer season.

“In places like San Diego, people want to dine outside — it’s hip, it’s comfortable, it’s the place you want to be,” Zapf said. “Now we can have more of a European style experience in more neighborhoods.”

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