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Manhattan Beach: No Outdoor Dining Consultant For Now

May 27, 2022 09:11AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Outdoor dining at Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach - Photo via Fishing with Dynamite.

At its budget planning meeting this week, Manhattan Beach City Council members agreed to hold off on a budget item that would have set aside $245,000 for a consultant to work on permanent outdoor dining for the city.

City staff told council members that the Manhattan Beach has to hire a senior planner - a position that the city has been working for several months to try to fill - before it could know the scope and content of what it would need to ask for in a consultant. 

The issue of the consultant, and planning for permanent outdoor dining, brought some drama to what would otherwise have been a relatively quiet meeting. Tuesday night's meeting was the second and final budget study session before the city approves its 2022/2023 budget on June 7.

The city received a total of 77 public comments before the meeting on outdoor dining, almost all in favor of outdoor dining and many specifically mentioning support for a consultant to draw up a plan to make outdoor dining permanent.

The public comment effort was boosted by the Outdoor Dining Manhattan Beach organization, which sent an email to interested parties earlier this week urging residents to comment in support of hiring the consultant. (The group, created by several local restaurant owners, counts 3,327 community supporters among its members.)

At the meeting, Councilmember Suzanne Hadley expressed frustration that the senior planner position was taking so long to hire, given that it was delaying the city's ability to move forward on a permanent outdoor dining plan. 

"This needs to be a priority," said Hadley. “The fundamental things that our community wants are being held up by this one position. “

But Manhattan Beach Community Development Director Carrie Tai said that the city was doing its best to hire a senior planner, which she said would be a necessary first step.

"My ability to scope for a consultant will not really be clear until we start the process, and we need [the senior planner] to start the process," she said.

When pressed about why current staff in the department could not take on the planning for  permanent outdoor dining, Tai said that her department was under tight deadline pressure to meet a new and accelerated housing element deadline in October, plus managing major development projects like the Sunrise Senior Living Center, the completion of the Manhattan Village Mall expansion, and ongoing home construction and remodeling projects.

Need for Consultant Defended, Questioned


Nevertheless, Councilmember Richard Montgomery called the (approximately) $250,000 for a consultant "a want, not a need," noting that the temporary dining decks were still up for the foreseeable future. "Why take $250,000 out of the budget for something that's not needed right away?" he asked.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Napolitano agreed: "If dining decks are not going anywhere, then what is the rush to make them permanent?" he asked. "That $250,000 can be put to better use," he added. "I want to take every single extra dime we have and I want to put it to our public serving spaces. I want to put it to our programs, I want to put it to our parks, to what serves residents the most."

But Hadley countered that the downtown restaurants are the equivalent of the "public spaces" that residents and visitors use the most. "The downtown is the crown jewel, it is what’s on the map that brings people to the community. Visit the ocean, see the pier, and eat dinner," she said. "This notion that it’s not a public area worthy of investment, I don’t even get that."

Hadley continued, "I want this [outdoor dining] for the residents. This is the number one issue I hear about on council."

Councilmember Joe Franklin added, "There’s going to be a day when the [dining] decks come down. I don’t think we want to be sitting there saying, 'What do we do next?' We should have a consultant lined up."

Mayor Hildy Stern proposed that, given that the yet-to-be-hired senior planner would need to be the one to "kickstart" the effort, the council should take the consultant out of the budget for now, with the knowledge that there will be a future time that the council will revisit the need. "I'm willing to do that knowing that we’re going to get that senior planner hired and working on that project," she said.

On her proposal she got three out of four (Hadley, Montgomery, and Napolitano, but not Franklin) thumbs up.


Downtown Business Association Weighs In


Manhattan Beach Downtown Business and Professionals Association (DBPA) Executive Director Jill Lamkin told MB News after the meeting that that DBPA had submitted dining deck schematics  created by contractor Gensler over a year ago that would create a more pleasing and consistent aesthetic for outdoor dining in its current state.

"However, as we heard more from residents and the city of Manhattan Beach, the current dining deck configuration is not ideal and in order to make it the experience everyone wants it to be, we may need a more significant redesign to allow for things like wider sidewalks," she said.

Lamkin added that she was surprised to hear at the meeting that some councilmembers thought that the DBPA should be “true partners” and offer to share in the costs for the consultant. "That was the first any of our membership had heard that request. If shared expenses would have gotten us closer to moving this project forward, I feel confident there are organizations, landlords and residents who would gladly have contributed financially to some degree, but that opportunity was never suggested," she said.

Lamkin continued, "The DBPA is excited to participate in [a redesign] and looks forward to working with the city and residents to create an outdoor experience that is unparalleled. We know this process can work with the appropriate community engagement; Metlox is a perfect example. We’re two years into outdoor dining and we’re no farther along in preparing for something permanent. The DBPA is anxious for the new city planner to be hired to begin this process and our members will enthusiastically participate."


Dining Decks Ongoing Source of Debate


Back in March, the Manhattan Beach City Council agreed to waive the fees that it charges to restaurants for the use of outdoor dining decks in the public right-of-way.

However, that motion was just one step in what has been a long and convoluted road for restaurants during the pandemic.

What has complicated the discussion is the fact that most of Downtown Manhattan Beach - a central destination for dining - is not designed to hold large swaths of outdoor dining.

During the pandemic, the city granted rights to restaurants to use the public right-of-way, including parking spaces, for outdoor seating; and many restaurants chose to take advantage of that opportunity by building special dining decks.

How long those decks should remain, what the restaurants' overall capacity limits should be, and whether and how much the city should charge for that use of the public right-of-way, remains an ongoing topic of discussion.

For a full timeline of outdoor dining in Manhattan Beach, see MB News' March 22 dining deck story.

The city's overall 2022/2023 budget is scheduled to be reviewed and approved at the Tuesday, June 7 City Council meeting.


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