From Restaurants to the Beach, Private Interests Are Taking More Public Grounds
By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
The recent uproar among OBceans over the intrusions into public sidewalks by two Ocean Beach restaurants illustrates a broader and growing wariness by the public of the larger issue of encroachment by private interests into public space.
Just several weeks ago, two OB restaurants, The Joint and the yet-to-open OB Brewery – both on Newport Avenue – have installed permanent fixtures outside their establishments that seriously curtail pedestrian traffic and block the public access to the public sidewalk immediately in front of the restaurants.
The Joint put in tables with a metal fence and gate, taking the encroachment trend in OB’s “outdoor cafes” to a new level. The OB Rag ran a poll where 42% of the respondents agreed that what The Joint did was an encroachment into public space and agreed that the fence and tables should be removed. The OB Brewery also installed exterior fencing that significantly narrows the public walkway.
The future of these intrusions into what many feel are the public’s right-of-way has yet to be ultimately decided, but the response by locals reflects a growing wariness among OBceans – and others who live up and down the coast or near parks – to what they perceive as an invasion into public space by people with private interests as their motivation.
Restaurants are one of the primary group of culprits in this new invasion. By our count, 14 other restaurants besides The Joint and the OB Brewery have outside seating, including tables and chairs, or have fenced in deck areas for their customers – and their customers only. A few of these decks protrude into the public sidewalk.
Many OB Restaurants Intrude into Public Space
Consider the following list of OB restaurants that, rightly or wrongly, permitted or not, with or without Planning Board or community approval, have invaded the public space – or what is perceived as public space:
In the Newport Avenue main business area:
- South Beach Bar & Grill;
- Newport Pizza;
- Gallagher’s Irish Pub;
- Yogurt Farm;
- The Joint;
- OB Brewery – yet to open;
- new OB Noodle House Bar 1502;
- Poma’s on Bacon;
- Newbreak on Abbott;
In the Voltaire Street business area:
- Hungry Lu’s on Voltaire;
- Litickers Liquor grill on Voltaire;
- original OB Noodle House on Cable.
Issue of Restaurants Is Complicated
Now, the issue of restaurants moving into public space is complicated. Many of these efforts towards outside seating have actually been encouraged by a recent turn of public and municipal sentiment in favor of so-called European dining or “cafe-style” dining, where restaurants (some with bars) expand outside, taking over sidewalks, plazas and other public space.
This new-found favoritism for an “old-world-style” of outdoor cafes was part of a wave of recapturing public space – important space that had been given up to an auto-dominated, concrete and asphalt world – now it’s a virtual “taking back” of lost public space. And it’s a trend that explicitly allows the private sector to do the actual “taking back”.
The positive bias towards cafe-style outside eateries also fit the new municipal development models, such as the “City of Villages” concept with its mixed use of commercial and residential, near mass transit, with a definite architectural style of more airy, open areas, plazas, walking and pedestrian orientation.
It’s part of the wave of a renewed interest and support for the pedestrian, trying to make the urban landscape more suitable to the pedestrian, to encourage people to get out of their cars, use bikes, mass transit, walk more, making small business areas more centralized, making business areas more walkable.
As part of the new wave of cafe-style dining in OB, it was in early May of 2013 when the original OB Noodle House received approval for their deck. They approached the OB Planning Board, after having received support from the OB Town Council, the Mainstreet Association and the OB restaurant group. Here is how we reported it then:
Steve Yeng – one of the owners of the OB Noodle House – appeared at the recent meeting of the OB Planning Board, requesting sidewalk seating in front of his restaurant on Cable Street.
OB Noodle House wants to construct a 485 square foot “sidewalk cafe” as part of their popular place, complaining of the proximity to traffic and a sloping sidewalk that makes the current seating in front of the restaurant uncomfortable and even somewhat dangerous. …
And at their meeting of May 1, the planners voted 9 – 0 – 1 in favor of the request by the restaurant, which was just recently visited by a well-known TV foodie.
Many of the other restaurants, bars and grills in OB followed suit and began the move outdoors. And usually these efforts were applauded by local residents and businesses.
Many of these “encroachments” into public space are temporary, that is the tables and chairs are usually removed once the place closes down for the day or night. Or some of the intrusions are into public space that has room to spare – where the sidewalks are wide enough or where there aren’t large crowds of pedestrians on the sidewalks.
Understanding that not all “encroachments” are equal is important. The “encroachment” by Shades and Tower Two onto the type of deck area at the commercial structure on the corner of Abbott and Santa Monica, for example, is not any kind of intrusion into public space, as it is privately owned space. (There have been no complaints, by the way, that we have heard about either one of those restaurants expanding their successful operations outside.)
Many times the individual circumstances are paramount in deciding whether there is an actual intrusion or encroachment or not. And many of the so-called intrusions are so minor that there is no concern. No one is saying that those restaurants with outside tables and chairs that are inside while closed ought to be removed.
Yet, there is a growing sense now among many in OB that the recent permanent fence by The Joint is too much, that the restaurant has gone too far – it’s just too dangerous for the thick crowds that often pass through that part of the busy intersection.
And the push-back against the restaurants’ take-over of public space is just part of a broader revulsion and a growing anguish against what is perceived as private interests staking out claims not just on the sidewalks, but also on the beaches, the cliffs and even access to the coast.
Other Type of Intrusions into Public Space
Restaurants are only one type of encroachment into that valued public space. There are other ways that public space is curtailed – and it’s a growing trend that our beaches and coastline are being used more and more by private companies for their own profit.
Consider the following:
- Yoga and exercise classes increasingly use more and more public beach, bluffs and coast;
- Volley ball teams and their nets take over more and more of the sand, run by private companies that charge local residents;
- Surf schools and camps stake out sections of public beach and use the waves for private lessons;
- Surfboard and mat rentals are set up on public land;
Then there’s other uses by private parties of our local public space:
- The series of restaurants where Bo Beau’s is today have always viewed that next door parking space as theirs, but it’s public lot;
- Individual guy with his paintings to sell sets up his little outdoor shop of art right on the OB Pier;
- Real estate agents set out flags and signs in the public right-of-way at busy intersections;
- Private rental bike companies like DeccoBikes set up their stands on public sidewalks at beaches and near parks – the City gets almost nothing in return;
- Corporate ads on Life Guard vehicles and facilities;
- Armed private security guards patrol public sidewalks and gathering areas.
The company DeccoBikes, for instance, as reported by the San Diego U-T is logging in lower ridership and revenue than the levels they convinced city officials they could meet. A casual observation by this author of 5 DeccoBike stations last weekend scattered between OB and Mission Beach found fewer than 50% of the bikes being rented. But their stands still take up a lot of sidewalk space. The U-T reported:
Company officials expressed optimism that better community outreach will reduce protests and complaints that have slowed the installation of new stations, especially in the potentially lucrative beach areas.
The OB Rag noted in an earlier article:
Throughout Southern California, from LA to OB, parks and beaches have been experiencing an influx of organized joggers or people exercising. Personal trainers are taking their classes out doors to public beaches and parks, to take advantage of the great weather. Every public beach has seen its swarm of organized fitness groups using the public space – at times – for a private profit.
There is a push-back happening. Local residents at different beach cities have taken issue with the group fitness classes. And they’re complaining about the human traffic jams in parks and on beaches enjoyed and appreciated for their beauty, solitude, nature-setting, etc.
As noted, we in OB have also heard lately complaints about the take over of sand and water by surf camps and schools – and the OBTC once took the issue on. Safety issues, access and use issues have bubbled up from residents in their complaints of these intrusions.
The OB Rag once opined:
Californians fought long and hard, particularly in the Seventies, for public access to the State’s beaches, cliffs and coastline. Some of the results of those efforts include San Diego’s thirty-foot height limit and the California Coastal Commission. Access to the beach, to the cliffs is sacrosanct.
There’s other common, every-day type of incursions. For instance, many merchants on Newport put out their wares for the public to view, right there on the sidewalk. Most of us don’t mind. Other merchants put out signs. Nobody seems to care. The dresses and other merchandise are returned to inside the storefront at the end of the business day.
It’s when merchants permanently encroach into the public arena that raises the most eyebrows and complaints. It’s when they install metal fences and gates where the public used to roam, with bolts into the concrete that causes the most outrage in people.
The growing wariness of locals – and residents up and down the coast – to the intrusions and encroachment into the public’s arena has a political side. If voters perceive the city and their representatives selling out our beaches and coasts to the highest bidder, taking away our public space permanently, then there will be a price to pay.
There is truly a deep-seated resentment over the taking of our public space, whether it be in front of restaurants, on the sandy beaches, or on our beautiful cliffs and bluffs and parks. The mantra to privatize everything has been chanted here in San Diego and the beach a little too long. It’s time to take our village back.