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Laurel Street outdoor dining program extended through Sept. 1, 2022

in A&E/Community

The outdoor dining program on Laurel Street in downtown San Carlos has been extended through Sept. 1, 2022.

The extension passed by a narrow 3-2 vote on City Council on Monday, with Vice Mayor Sara McDowell and Councilmembers John Dugan and Adam Rak voting in favor and Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan and Councilmember Ron Collins voting against.

The decision went against city staff’s recommendation to end the program on Sept. 1 this year, as previously approved by council.

Council has twice rejected staff recommendations to end the program, which has been popular among community members and a majority of businesses. The outdoor program launched in summer 2020 in order to provide an economic boost for downtown restaurants impacted by indoor restrictions. It has reportedly drawn ample crowds to Laurel Street, from in and out of town. But city staff says the street closure and parklets are becoming less critical for businesses reopening to full capacity, and added that clearing the street would benefit non-restaurant businesses that have also suffered during the pandemic and are dependent on storefront parking. Staff also said continuing the program would disrupt community events such as the Downtown Block Party, the Farmers’ Market and the Art & Wine Faire.

Rather than continue the program, city staff recommended ending it and possibly looking to develop a permanent program as part of the Downtown Plan, which is set to begin at the start of 2022. “However, this plan is likely to take 12 years to complete,” staff said.

The council ultimately voted against waiting that long.

Councilmember Rak said he did not want Laurel Street to return to the way it was before, but is open to adjusting the program in ways that benefit non-restaurant retailers and the customers who visit them.

“While I understand we have a longterm plan, we need to have a midterm plan to get there, a midterm plan that we can all coalesce around and be supportive of,” Rak said.

Councilmember Dugan said he’s “heard a lot overwhelming support” for keeping the program. “I’ve had many people say this is one of the very best things to come out of the pandemic…I do agree with Councilmember Rak, there’s just got to be a midterm plan or transitionary period that can preserve what we’ve found here.”

Terminating the program now, while the pandemic is still ongoing, would deprive young families with unvaccinated children of the option to dine outdoors, Vice Mayor McDowell said. She said she received over 300 emails from community members in support of the outdoor dining program, and less than a dozen from those who oppose it.

In voting to against the extension, Councilmember Ron Collins called the program “wildly popular,” but also disruptive to non-restaurant businesses, saying the current configuration obscures storefronts and reduces parking in a way that makes it difficult for people to visit them, including disabled community members.

“Just because 95 percent of people still want something, doesn’t mean it’s right to permanently harm those businesses that are located on Laurel Street and were located there long before the shutdown,” Collins said.

Collins had proposed to extend the program through the end of October this year before ending it, and then launching a plan to review a permanent solution.

Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan echoed Collins’ concerns that extending the program would prompt the loss of “some valuable community members, businesses and employees.”

A survey conducted in the summer of 2020 found that 71 percent of downtown business were in favor of the program while 29 percent were against it, the city said. A subsequent survey conducted at the beginning of 2021 found 78 percent to be in favor and 22 percent to be against.