Losing Outdoor Dining Should Get Manhattan Beach Thinking

By Dave Fratello | December 9th, 2021

manhattan-beach-downtown-dining-decksIt was a downer this week, without a doubt, that the city council of Manhattan Beach agreed to proceed with plans to dismantle outdoor dining decks around city restaurants and taverns.

(See coverage in this article about the dining decks from our sister site, DigMB.com.)

By the first week of the new year, the remaining decks will begin to be removed.

These dining decks, essential to helping many businesses operate through the pandemic, have also become a delight, a fixture, almost an entitlement, for local residents and visitors alike. Heck, they even gave out awards this year to the nicest holiday designs on the outdoor decks. There are about two dozen decks remaining that now must come down.

Losing al fresco dining by the beach is a punch in the gut.

And yet...

The crisis is also an opportunity.

City council is neither heartless nor unaware of the support for the decks. But the decks do mean lost revenue for the city, and arguably months-long gifts to local businesses. At some point, they had to watch out for the civic good.

Now is the time to get creative, get organized and push for alternatives.

Luckily, someone's spearheading that already. A group calling itself Outdoor Dining Manhattan Beach is asking local residents (and anyone who loves the dining decks) to sign on and show support. (Which is very easy to do on their website!)

They want an "area-wide redesign" to accommodate more permanent outdoor dining. They argue that it's good for everyone. (Image below from their site.)

It won't surprise you that the Outdoor Dining group was spearheaded by local restaurants, but these are not exactly the sort of corporate interests people rail against for dominating politics.

Quite the opposite, there seems to be intense local sympathy for our local dining scene. You saw it in the support people gave by ordering takeout en masse throughout the pandemic to help keep dining establishments afloat, as well as in all those full dining decks over these many months.

(Side note: Some of you newbies have no idea how good we've got it now. Back in our first days here in MB, more than 2 decades ago, Manhattan Beach had few high-end food options. It was hardly a celebrated destination for dining.)

downtown-manhattan-beach-dining-deckSo we've signed up to add our support for outdoor dining, and we hope many of you will, too.

Then it's time for details.

City council members have shown some openness to find a solution. Mayor Hildy Stern said this week, "We can’t just say, 'We really like [outdoor dining] so we’ll keep it,' but we can say, 'We have a vision that we want to continue to work with.' This isn’t the end of the discussion; this is just a pause."

The Outdoor Dining group expresses the outline of that sort of vision, and promises to include considerations such as "management of outdoor spaces, keeping views clear, access for pedestrians, revenue generation for the community and more."

Next step: The grind of urban planning, and working through objections.

Dial back about 5-6 years, and there actually was a "visioning" and planning process for downtown. The city paid an urban planning firm to work with residents to map out a long-term plan for a revivified downtown area. (Disclosure: Dave was a volunteer member of one of the visioning/planning groups providing input to the planning firm.)

Fast-forward... The end result, a "specific plan" for downtown and associated "design guidelines," largely avoided making changes to outdoor dining, and certainly did not bend over backwards to make new accommodations for it.

That's too bad, because one of the earliest reports from the planning group (in 2015) noted:

"The Manhattan Beach culture and climate are ideal for outdoor dining opportunities, including sidewalk dining. Sidewalk dining is one of the most dynamic ways to create activity on streets. Sidewalk dining opportunities are limited for many businesses because of narrow sidewalk sections. Wider sidewalks would make desirable sidewalk dining more achievable in many areas."

You could say the same thing today, but in boldface.

If we're going to lose the decks, you have to address the sidewalks. And if you're going widen some of the sidewalks, you have to be willing to give up some parking... which the city just did for more than a year, and it was good.

It was a forced experiment, and it worked.

Going back to that "visioning" process several years ago, one of the boldest proposals we saw during the early stages was to make Manhattan Beach Blvd. a one-way street through downtown down to The Strand. This would open up space for wider sidewalks, open plaza areas and much more outdoor dining. (With less parking.)

That massively bold idea (is that what to call it?) didn't really include much of a plan for traffic flow, and was vehemently opposed by downtown residents. So it died.

But something comparable, if less bold, might need to hit the agenda to make outdoor dining permanent.

Whether we lose parking or find it somewhere else (there are proposals for that, too), it's worthwhile to work to make Manhattan Beach an outdoor dining paradise for the long term.

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