San Diego is known for its mild climate and gorgeous weather, almost all year round – and what could be more delightful than dining al fresco at a restaurant with a patio or sidewalk café?
Restaurant owners in Little Italy, the Gaslamp and other neighborhoods dreamed of creating a vibrant atmosphere with sidewalk dining, a familiar sight in the great cities of the world. But many found that it wasn’t as simple as putting a few tables and chairs on the sidewalk.
“We have the best weather in the world, and the San Diego Convention Center and Tourism Authority were bringing tourists into the Gaslamp,” said permitting expert Marco Polo Cortes. “And yet, at the same time government regulation was making it harder for restaurants to provide that San Diego experience of outdoor dining, because of a cumbersome and duplicative permit process.”
Small entrepreneurs couldn’t afford to navigate the long process – sometimes as long as a year of paperwork – to get sidewalk café permits. Restaurants were required to satisfy the rules of both the City of San Diego and Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). And it was expensive – to the tune of $5,000 to $10,000 in permit and barrier construction costs.
In 2012, the California Restaurant Association decided to push for easing the cumbersome rules. The CRA turned to Marco Polo Cortes for his institutional knowledge of the permitting process.
“There are many benefits to allowing sidewalk cafes; it allows us to take advantage of the beautiful weather we have here in San Diego while creating additional income for restaurants – providing jobs, tax revenue and economic impact,” said Chris Duggan, California Restaurant Association Director of Local Government Affairs: San Diego, Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. “Yet it was a very long and expensive process to get a sidewalk café in front of your restaurant. Many of our members couldn’t afford the expense – making it a nonstarter.”
Under the City’s Municipal Code at that time, restaurants that wanted to place a few tables on the sidewalk were required to go through a discretionary review process, including environmental analysis, formal public noticing and the option for opponents to appeal staff decisions to the Planning Commission. Regulations in the heart of downtown were even stricter, requiring standard fencing plus Plexiglas barriers.
As a representative of multiple restaurants seeking sidewalk café permits, Cortes worked closely with Duggan to simplify the process.
One of Cortes’ clients was Pappalecco, with café in multiple locations, including in Little Italy. At the same time, Cortes was also collaborating with the Little Italy Association on a fence-less sidewalk café program for that neighborhood only.
“We are in San Diego and people want to be outside. When you add some outdoor square footage, your restaurant immediately becomes a bigger space, and you can put in more tables – which means more money,” Francesco Bucci, co-owner of Pappalecco. “As an Italian restaurant, we wanted to provide that experience for our customers.”
The CRA and Cortes brought together the Alcohol Beverage Control, the City of San Diego planning staff, Civic San Diego, the San Diego Police Department and other decision makers to walk through proposed changes to the Sidewalk Café Ordinance. This initiative included many steps: Mayor direction to staff; a City review process among Planning, Engineering, Police and Fire Departments; a Planners Group meeting; Land Use Committee and Public Safety Committee consideration; as well as a staff report and public comments.
The effort was successful in streamlining the process and cutting costs for owners. On May 14, 2013, the San Diego City Council approved the revised Sidewalk Café Ordinance.
“We were able to get the City to reduce the requirements for business owners, meaning a shorter timeline, less duplication, and common-sense procedures,” said Cortes.
Duggan said that Cortes was “instrumental in the development of the Sidewalk Café Ordinance through both his institutional knowledge and his relationships.”
And the new rules immediately benefited Cortes’ restaurant clients – including Pappalecco.
Bucci, co-owner of Pappalecco, said: “I can always trust Marco Polo to handle everything and help me through the process.”