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LA City Planning Department aims to amend ordinance on outdoor dining restrictions

A restaurant is pictured. City leaders are considering a proposal that would revise Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Al Fresco ordinance. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

By Gabby Jamall

April 20, 2023 11:50 p.m.

The Los Angeles City Planning Department is considering easing restrictions for outdoor dining on private property for local restaurants.

The city planning department and former Mayor Eric Garcetti created the Al Fresco ordinance in 2020 to allow for outdoor dining options during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ordinance temporarily allowed restaurants to open up outdoor dining spaces in parking lots, patios and balconies.

However, an amended draft of the ordinance was released by the city planning department and endorsed by Mayor Karen Bass on April 7, with several revisions made to the existing rules on alcohol permits, the use of parking spaces for dining areas and the amount of additional space a restaurant can dedicate to outdoor dining. The ordinance was amended in response to more than 2,500 comments on a public survey released by the city planning department.

According to a report from the city planning department, the new ordinance would reduce application and planning fees for serving alcohol in outdoor dining areas. The newly proposed measures would have restaurants incur only a $400 application fee for outdoor alcohol service, compared to previous fees, which ranged from $4,000 to $20,000.

Regulations regarding the use of parking spaces for outdoor dining areas were also adjusted. In the past, restaurants were limited to the use of five parking spaces on their property for outdoor dining use, but the potential changes allow for unlimited spaces to be converted, according to the report.

The original Al Fresco ordinance allowed local restaurants to operate with accessibility to the public during the pandemic, said Dana Slatkin, owner and executive chef of Violet L.A., which is a French bistro, bar and cooking school on Glendon Avenue.

Violet L.A. was one of several Westwood restaurants to use the program, alongside Toranj, Upside Down and Skylight Gardens, among others. Slatkin said that her restaurant opened just eight days before the pandemic began, but the Al Fresco ordinance allowed her to keep Violet L.A. open and convert nearby parking spaces to outdoor dining when she could not keep her indoor dining and bar open because of public restrictions intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“There was a time when people only wanted to eat outdoors, so we felt really lucky because we not only had the parklet, but we now also have an outdoor courtyard, and we have an upstairs terrace that is open air,” Slatkin said.

Slatkin added that she is hopeful about the revisions made and what they could mean for her restaurant and other locally owned businesses in Westwood.

“I think it’s flexible, it’s approachable. I’m not daunted by the prospect of all the permits and paperwork because it sounds relatively streamlined,” she said. “I’m excited that our city has listened to the will of the people and not only city dwellers but also business owners.”

Other amendments include permitting private events in outdoor dining areas and removing restrictions on the percentage of a restaurant’s area allocated to outdoor dining space.

The Al Fresco ordinance is set to eventually expire with the end of the California COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a spokesperson for the LA Al Fresco team said. However, they said that the amended draft will be brought before the City Planning Commission on the tentative date of April 27, and if it is accepted, it will go to the City Council for a formal review for permanent implementation.

A goal of District 5 Councilmember Katy Young Yaroslavsky – who represents areas such as Westwood and UCLA – is to secure Al Fresco as a permanent operation, said Dylan Sittig, the council member’s senior planning deputy. He added that businesses and constituents will be supported by the new ordinance in having more livable and walkable neighborhoods.

Andrew Lewis, vice president of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, said that the opportunity for civic engagement and feedback was indispensable to the Al Fresco Program’s initial success and will continue to contribute to its effectiveness in supporting local businesses.

“I really do think the public comment for this ordinance saved the program,” he said.

Lewis said the beneficial nature of the Al Fresco ordinance was visible in its original implementation during the pandemic.

“It was kind of a two-fold success in that it … allowed restaurants to continue operation throughout the pandemic, even during the peak of it, with outdoor dining and also revitalized neighborhoods by rethinking how we use public space in a new way,” Lewis said.

Michael Russell, executive director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association, said the revised draft is undoubtedly beneficial for local Westwood restaurants, offering business and revenue opportunities, which had largely stagnated during the pandemic.

“This is just an opportunity for them (local restaurants) to kind of potentially catch up on lost revenue by having additional seating and by having additional areas of service,” he said.

But the revised ordinance does raise potential concerns about the costs that could be incurred by the city with a loss of parking spaces, Russell said, adding that he would like to see if the additional seating created provides additional revenue for the city.

Students and other Westwood residents can submit their feedback to the City Planning department until April 27 before the commission decides whether to approve the new ordinance. Lewis said concerned residents can either call in to the commission’s meeting live or write to the City Planning department with their concerns.

Slatkin said she is optimistic about the future of the Al Fresco program and appreciates the city’s efforts to accommodate the needs and wants of local restaurants in a new post-pandemic era.

“It just shows that the spirit of outdoor dining has been with us for decades,” she said. “And I’m just proud and happy that the city has honored that.”

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