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Downtown 'Pocket' Proposal Brings Out A Wide Range Of Opinions

Many like the plan for aluminum platforms for outdoor dining, but don't like their seasonal nature, or the idea of paying for them.

Over 100 people came to City Hall Thursday to hear the city’s proposal for creating outdoor dining “pockets” along Main Street and other downtown streets. Most people seemed to like what they heard, except for two key concerns: the potential cost of the aluminum platforms to the business owners, and the city’s plans to remove the platforms from November through March to help avoid flooding problems.

The other main point of contention was what to do with the existing pockets on the 500 block.

There were two meetings on Thursday – one in the afternoon and another in the evening. Both were heavily attended by downtown merchants, particularly those from the 500 block of Main Street, where pockets have been in place for the past 11 years, property owners and residents. 

Public Works Director Dave Scola explained the idea to put aluminum platforms in one or two parking places on the street, to create a place for outdoor dining. The platforms could be connected to take as many as two parking spaces. Business owners would have to get insurance for outdoor dining, and there would likely be a cost to the owners for the platforms, though how much is still being determined.

The fate of the present pockets, and the one-way configuration of the 500 block, also remains a point of contention. Several 500 block merchants asked the city to keep the current 500 block configuration in place for a year while the new platforms are tried on the rest of Main Street.

Downtown property owner Earl Dunivan balked at the suggestion, saying that keeping the present pockets on Main Street was “off the table.”

“We’ve lost focus of what’s driving this,” he said. “The city said we need to pave the 500 block, and in order to pave, we have to remove the pockets. The flex pockets were brought into play because the city had to replace the old pockets, but then it was felt it was only fair to let all the restaurants have pockets. The 500 block remaining as it is is off the table.”

Dunivan noted that the 12 years the 500 block has not collected parking meter revenue comes to $183,000, and also said that the merchants should not have to pay more than the lost revenue from parking meters for the platforms, which would come to about $80 per month.

Anne Mobley, owner of White Rabbit Boutique, countered that the city paved Pacheco Boulevard around some newly-planted trees, and didn’t see why it couldn’t do the same on the 500 block.

“I think (the new pockets are) a fabulous idea,” she said. “People love the outdoor dining. Try it out on the other blocks before dismantling what works on our block. Try it a year or so.”

She added that to ask merchants to pay for the pockets is “ridiculous.”  

“I’ve enjoyed our pockets so much,” said Pat English of Haute Stuff. “They create a space, a feel. The pockets you’re proposing sounds hot and reflective to me. It sounds like it’s not a good space to sit on.”

She also questioned where restaurant owners would store the furniture and equipment from the pockets for the four months out of the year that the pockets would be taken away.

And the issue of paying a fee for use of the pockets did not sit well with her.

“This is not an easy town,” she said. “It’s not lucrative to have a business here. To assess more fees to create the ambience diners want just doesn’t pencil out.”

Kelly Neil, owner of Triskelion hair salon, said the aluminum platforms did not fit into the historic ambience of downtown.

“We have beautiful brick downtown sidewalks,” Neil said. “You’re taking something pleasing already, and changing it into an urban, more compact space – your verbiage and your actions are inconsistent.”

Rachael Ford, chair of the Planning Commission and board member and Treasurer of Main Street Martinez, spoke as a private citizen when she said the 500 block should not be characterized as the only part of downtown that’s doing well. She also criticized the businesses now who are using the pockets as outdoor dining without paying for them.

“If I could have had the city subsidize my square footage for 12 years, I would have been thrilled,” she said. “When I had a business, I paid for every single square footage I had.”

Engineer Harlan Strickland urged the city to try the pocket experiment on other blocks before taking down the 500 block pockets.

“No one knows for sure why the 500 block is so successful” he said. “On the 500 block, you can get in touch with your inner jaywalker. There is slow traffic and a narrow roadway. And free parking. Benicia and Pleasant Hill have no meters. Walnut Creek gets written about in New York magazines. They can afford to piss people off. If people come here and get a $40 cup of coffee (because they get a parking ticket), they’re not coming back.”

Dick Duncan, who was the primary driver of the original pockets program, said the one-way configuration of the 500 block was done to keep the same number of parking space available. He urged the city to consider one-way traffic all along Main Street, and to make parking diagonal.

“I’m concerned about the extra cost of putting these up and taking them down,” he said. “You’re creating an ambience on Main Street. To put it away for four months out of the year doesn’t work.” 

City officials will take the comments from Thursday's meeting under consideration as the project continues to make its way through the approval process, said councilwoman Janet Kennedy, one of two members of the Economic Development subcommittee who, with councilwoman Lara DeLaney, chaired the Thursday meetings.

Kennedy said the city hopes to begin using the pockets as early as this summer. 

Anne Mobley April 09, 2012 at 03:25 AM
The video showed that they "slowed the street down" by making it one-way, made a bike lane buffer, and success followed! Why can't we incorporate bike lanes down Main Street too with one-way to the court house? Jason is the consultant we should have hired!
Linda Meza April 09, 2012 at 05:26 AM
Anne, while I appreciate the passion I believe it's missing the underlying message of How to Build a Better Block which was anyone committed to making a change - can. The examples were built on the cheap, were intended to last no longer than a weekend and the only point hoped to be made was to offer residents, stakeholders and City Hall an experiential frame of reference of what could work. In the video Jason speaks about planners and consultants crafting visual aides where people are photoshopped into the scene. In the weekend projects constructed, there are real people interacting in these spaces. As for no vehicular traffic; if the businesses facing Main Street abutted an alleyway then blocking the roads to vehicular traffic would not negatively impact deliveries. Similarly if there were only one natural entry into the downtown; but I think people are forgetting the exit at Marina Vista and Hwy 680. If Main Street were one-way traveling from Alhambra to Court then the only traffic I can foresee businesses capturing would be those vehicles coming into the downtown from Hwy 4 and Alhambra. Visitors into our town, be they coming from Hwy 4 or 680, should be carefully considered when businesses start trying to compel a pattern of travel that may not feel comfortable or natural to someone not familiar with our streets. But those are merely my thoughts.
Chris Kapsalis April 09, 2012 at 06:55 AM
Linda, I forget who but someone suggested one way from Court to Ferry, then one way from Alhambra to Ferry. I think that could work. I personally do not like one way streets , however for our Main Street I do. It is narrow. With two way traffic it could not handle the size street pockets on the 500 block But the way our Mains Street is, thin, you have to have one way to have the type of pockets we have on the 500 block, which people really like. so sacrificing two way for big street pockets might be a good idea for business after observing what they did for the 500 block, at least for restaurants . More spread out, the restaurants would not be so concentrated and foot traffic would increase the length of Main, especially off County peek hours, and maybe more business would open on off streets. I see so many people now on the 500 block, if this was spread out the length of Main? We can't have a city with nothing but restaurants though. But what worked on the 500 I think needs to spread out, With two way traffic it would mean we could not have pockets like the 500 block has, with such a thin Main Street.
Chris Kapsalis April 09, 2012 at 07:07 AM
I should add I would hate to have Main Street one way all the way, living here, doing so much stuff downtown I do, but there is no way to have big street pockets without one way. So I guess I am, in the middle. This is a working town, and whatever happens I hope we consider "everyone" before deciding how our main street should be.
Linda Meza April 09, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Since I mentioned KickStarter as an online crowdscourced fund raising mechanism, here's a campaign to fund an Oakland parklet that successfully reached its goal (funds aren't transferred unless this threshold is met) one day ago. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/missmackay/the-40th-street-parklet

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