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.