‘Parklet’ outdoor dining option to continue in city of Sarasota through September while staff drafts ordinance to keep it in place indefinitely

Business owners remain divided over the program

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota city commissioners directed city staff to implement a six-month extension of the provision for “parklets” that first were allowed as a means of helping city restaurants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, restaurants in downtown Sarasota and on St. Armands Circle were able to use parking spaces for their businesses to accommodate people who felt safer dining outdoors. However, even as concerns about the coronavirus have decreased among the general public over the past year, commissioners indicated that they have seen for themselves how popular the parklets have become with residents and visitors.

After a board discussion in December 2022, City Manager Marlon Brown extended the provision for parklets from the end of that month to March 31. Brown also decided to charge the businesses $25 per day for each parking space they used, to make up for the loss of city revenue that would have been generated by people paying to park in the spots.

At the recommendation this week of City Attorney Robert Fournier, the new extension will be valid through September.

Although Brown was not present for the discussion, Deputy City Manager Patrick Robinson indicated that he would make certain the extension is implemented.

Additionally, the motion that Commissioner Erik Arroyo made on Feb. 21 called for Fournier to draft an ordinance — with the collaboration of other city employees — that would allow the parklets to continue in operation indefinitely. That draft is to come back to the commissioners for consideration no later than six months from Feb. 21, though Fournier indicated the possibility that it could be completed sooner.

Finally, the motion called for city staff to conduct what Arroyo characterized as “an inclusive town hall” to gain the views of business owners and the public in regard to whether the parklets should be allowed to continue.

Commissioner Debbie Trice also talked of the need to gain comments from the members of the boards of the St. Armands Business Improvement District (BID) and the Downtown Improvement District (DID), which would help the commissioners decide how to proceed.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch stressed to her colleagues that, while she would support the motion, she wanted to see data to help her make an informed decision on the proposed ordinance.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert and Mayor Kyle Battie joined Arroyo in voicing support for the parklets, saying they have seen how busy the downtown Sarasota business district has been with those outdoor seating options in place.

“I think it’s a great program,” Arroyo said. “We need to help our businesses. … It’s heavily supported by the business community and our residents. Of course, there will always be naysayers.”

Among that latter group are the directors of the BID and DID, as Julie Ryan, manager of the city’s business districts, told the commissioners.

The members of both boards, she said, “have had very lengthy discussions at many, many meetings.”

The members of the BID, she indicated, are concerned about the need to ensure that sufficient parking revenue from the Circle accrues each year, as the money formally is dedicated to paying off the bonds the city issued to pay for the St. Armands parking garage.

Only two businesses on the Circle have parklets, Ryan noted, while 11 do in downtown Sarasota; the latter are using 22 parking spaces.

Ryan further explained that members of both boards have concerns about the appearance of the parklets. “Aesthetically,” she said, [the BID and DID directors] don’t believe that what’s there now … brings any consistency.” The organizations have worked to beautify the business districts, she continued; yet, the directors find that some of the parklets are not very attractive.

Moreover, she pointed out, many of the tables are piled atop each other in the parking spaces during the daytime, when restaurants using the parklets are closed.

One other point of contention, she said, is that the BID and DID members view the parklets as providing an unfair business advantage to restaurants, since other types of businesses have not been using them.

Arroyo countered her comments by noting, “I have seen some great concepts throughout the country,” with merchants other than restaurateurs creating outdoor seating for their customers. He pointed out that the parklet program is not restricted to dining establishments.

Nonetheless, he did concur with Ryan that tables and chairs piled on each other in parking spaces is “unsightly for our city.”

The need to make an informed decision

At several points during the 45-minute discussion, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch emphasized the need for data, so she and her colleagues could make an informed decision on the proposed ordinance.

Arroyo suggested that city staff could come up with that data for the commissioners. Additionally, he said, he would share with his colleagues studies he had read about parklets in cities such as Miami and Philadelphia, as well as in locations in Canada and overseas.

Mayor Battie added, “My data is the eye test, you know.” He has seen how busy the restaurants are that have been using the parklets, he continued. He also worries, he said, how the businesses would be affected if the commission removed the parklet option. Many of them that suffered from loss of revenue during the height of the pandemic still are in recovery mode, Battie pointed out.

The only speaker to address the commissioners during the Feb. 21 discussion was Jonathan Van Dyke, general manager of Duval’s restaurant, which stands at 1435 Main St.

Van Dyke contended that ending the parklet program would result in the city’s “losing nearly 200,000 happy people visiting and spending downtown,” as well as 50 jobs related to use of the outdoor dining space.

Van Dyke did acknowledge, “We know there are some merchants who are against keeping parklets.” Yet, he added, many others “have freely admitted” that their business traffic has been better. … Many saw a record year in 2022.”

Moreover, Van Dyke said, “Less than 1% of all downtown parking spaces [devoted to the parklets] doesn’t equate to the loss of nearly 200,000 shoppers every year.”

Factors for consideration in the ordinance

At the outset of the Feb. 21 discussion, City Attorney Fournier explained that, late last year, he was pessimistic that any legally valid arguments could be made to keep the parklets in place permanently.

Subsequently, he said, he read ordinances that had been enacted to allow them in other cities around the state.

Two legal standards have to be met, Fournier continued, to justify the provision for the parklets.

The first, he explained, is a credible argument that the use of parking spaces for outdoor seating serves a valid public purpose.

The second, he noted, is that the primary purpose of the street still is for the passage of motor vehicles, with parking spaces available.

“These ordinances [he has read] seem to … contain some components to show they’re trying to meet those two standards,” Fournier added.

If the City Commission decided to move forward with an ordinance allowing parklets in the business districts as a routine matter, he recommended that a hearing be conducted to ensure that enough of the city’s merchants — other than restaurateurs — and members of the public believe that the parklets serve a public purpose.

The primary public benefit cited in the ordinances he had analyzed, Fournier said, is that parklets stimulate economic development.

In a Feb. 1 memo for the commissioners, he characterized that as follows: “There seems to be a general perception in those communities that have gone forward with on street dining programs that the use of

the parking spaces for outdoor dining enhances the experience of visitors to the areas in which it is allowed, thereby drawing more visitors to the benefit of all the businesses in the area.”

Further, Fournier indicated during the Feb. 21 discussion, a record of a strong show of public approval of the parklets in the city of Sarasota would support the idea that the parklets serve a public purpose. That also would facilitate the city’s fighting any legal challenge of a formal regulation that the commissioners had voted into law, Fournier said. Legal action is likely, he indicated, if an ordinance is implemented in the future.

Several of the ordinances he had reviewed limit the number of parking spaces that can be set aside for a parklet; for example, Fournier continued, no more than two parallel spaces or three angled spaces have been stipulated.

Additionally, he explained, many of the ordinances reference an engineering design manual that lays out all of the details of a parklet, including the fact that it complies with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Nonetheless, Fournier acknowledged, “I think [creating such a manual] is sort of labor-intensive for [city] engineering [staff].”

Further, he said, “Many or even possibly most [of the ordinances]” require that a revocable license be issued for use of public parking spaces for parklets. That would be preferable to issuing a permit, Fournier explained, because a permit implies permanency, and the City of Sarasota ordinance should not indicate that the parklets are permanent.