Seal Beach moves to allow outdoor dining

The parking lot at the Hangout has been converted to an outdoor dining area. Photo by Charles M. Kelly

The City Seal Beach will start allowing communal dining areas today, Thursday, July 9, to be shared by Main Street restaurants.

It’s apparently the intent of city officials to balance the interests of restaurant owners and retailers in the Main Street area.

At present, there are no plans for the city to either close Main Street to car traffic to permit outdoor dining on the street or to convert parking spaces in front of restaurants into dining spaces. The Sun phoned all five council members for comments and received responses from four. (See below.)

One council member said he would propose that the city consider converting parking spaces into “parklets” for outdoor dining in front of restaurants.

In related news, Beachwood BBQ Seal Beach announced on social media last week that the Main Street restaurant was closing forever, joining Walt’s Wharf as a permanently closed local Seal Beach business.

The Coast Modern shop has become an online-only operation. A jewelry shop closed earlier during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are now at least eight empty spaces on the city’s iconic Main Street.

Communal dining

“As you are aware, another dining option coming soon to the Main Street corridor is two “communal” dining areas that will be located at Electric Avenue and within a portion of Eisenhower Park,” Johnson wrote in a July 2 email to the Sun.

“We’re planning to have these open by next Thursday (7/9). There will be a number of tables and chairs placed at these locations, which will occur from around 4:00 to sunset Wednesday-Sunday. The number of days, hours available and number tables and chairs offered may vary depending upon use,” Johnson wrote.

“Consumption of alcohol will not be allowed within the temporary communal dining areas,” Johnson wrote in a July 7 email. 

“This is due to the city not having an alcohol license and ABC is unable to allow for such without a license,” Johnson wrote.

Tom Rowe, Abbey owner and member of the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern that restaurants can’t make money on dining that does not allow alcohol consumption.

“Signs will be posted at each of the two communal dining areas representing that they are for restaurant patrons.  In addition, we will have staff present to ensure that the areas are kept clean, properly sanitized and utilized by restaurant patrons,” Johnson wrote.

On Monday, Rowe told the Sun that he spoke with Johnson about the possibility of allowing restaurant owners to use parking spaces in front of their businesses for dining. Rowe said Johnson didn’t give him a yes or a no.

“They really need to allow us to do something quickly,” Rowe said.

Meanwhile, many local restaurants have added outdoor dining on the sidewalks, or converted their parking lots or patios into dining areas. Other local businesses, have little sidewalk space or little or no parking areas available for conversion. Rowe said Taco Surf doesn’t have room out front.

Rowe compared allowing sidewalk dining in front of restaurants to “putting sand in a pothole.”

In other cities, Rowe said he had seen big tents set up outside for dining. He said he didn’t see how that was different from indoor dining.

In a phone interview Monday, Community Development Direct Johnson, pointed out that the council was not interested in closing Main Street when the council discussed allowing outdoor dining.

He said a lot of restaurants had taken advantage of outdoor dining.

Johnson said he couldn’t say that  other options wouldn’t be considered in the future. Johnson said the city was trying to find a balance for what works best for all businesses.

“It’s devastating to restaurants to have to close for dine in service on a weekend that is historically one of the biggest of the year,” wrote Chamber President Kori DeLeon in a Wednesday, July 1 email to the Sun.   

“Many of our restaurants had just pre-ordered inventory to meet what was anticipated to be a big weekend.  We encourage everyone to continue to support your favorite places to eat by ordering take-out or grabbing one of the new outdoor dining tables,” DeLeon wrote.

“We’re working on a campaign with the city to #DoYourPart to #KeepSealBeachOpen that addresses those things.  Wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing isn’t fun, but it is what will keep Seal Beach open and that’s a goal that everyone can work together to achieve,” DeLeon wrote. 

“In the beginning, it was confusing for business owners and patrons with different messaging coming from the State and County levels.  We have a great relationship with the City of Seal Beach, who has been very consistent in their messaging.  Face coverings are required while conducting essential business, like shopping, visiting restaurants, as well as anywhere in public where social distancing isn’t possible.  The city put up sandwich board with those explanations and we’re appreciative that it takes the burden off the business owners to interpret guidelines.  The goal I think everyone can get behind is to have a safe Seal Beach where we can enjoy the beach, shopping and restaurants.  Right now, that means face coverings and social distancing,” DeLeon wrote.

Council comments

In response to voicemail requests for comment, Mayor/District Four City Councilwoman Schelly Sustarsic wrote in an email, “I have asked the City to send an update to you on their plans for outdoor dining in Seal Beach.”

Johnson responded by phone and email.

“I have not heard from any residents regarding closing Main Street for [a] restaurant,” wrote District Three City Councilman Michael Varipapa in a July 6 email.

“Parklettes sound like a good idea but I would like to get feedback from the residents/business  on taking parking spaces before moving forward,” he wrote.

District Two Councilman Thomas Moore said he hadn’t heard anything about closing Main Street or using parking spaces for dining.

Moore said he thought the council might need to meet again to discuss outdoor dining.

He said personally he was open to whatever will benefit the restaurants. he also said the council wants to be careful with parking so as not to hurt retailers.

District One Councilman Joe Kalmick said he was leaning toward supporting allowing parking spaces in front of restaurants to be used for restaurant dining.

Kalmick said that even though the city has allowed sidewalk dining while maintaining ADA clearance on the sidewalk, on a busy day the sidewalks are still crowded, which creates an issue with social dining.

Kalmick said that, thinking about converting parking spaces, the first thing he realized was that without Walt’s Wharf and Beachwood BBQ, there are customers who won’t be using parking spaces. Also, Uber and Lyft have alleviated parking demand.

He said the city needs to look at solutions for restaurants that don’t have space for sidewalk tables.

Kalmick said he was going to propose that the city look further into using parking spaces for dining.

Kalmick said he was opposed for practical reasons to closing Main Street to traffic, as that would affect other businesses.

He said the solution is to build parklets to level of the natural curvature of the street. He acknowledged that businesses such as Taco Surf have no space for sidewalk tables and The Abbey has little space.

Kalmick said the city still has to be careful about liability.

He said his feelings are evolving almost as fast as the governor’s orders are evolving.

The governor last week ordered a temporary ban on indoor dining that was reportedly for a three-week period.