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
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.
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."
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
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
charges to restaurants for the use of outdoor dining decks in the public
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