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Opinion: Councilman Blumenfield Fights to Keep Al Fresco Dining

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As we attempt to get past the COVID-19 pandemic our goal as a City government should not simply be to return to normal. Instead, we must create a new normal where we embrace and build upon the positive innovations that were necessitated by the pandemic and we jettison those bureaucratic hurdles and old ways of doing things that had been preserved more by inertia than need. Out of the crises comes the opportunity to make Los Angeles a better functioning city that better meets the needs of all Angelinos. 

Right now is a critical time for local, county and state governments to look at the many rule changes and tools that were made available during the pandemic to help folks and determine what should stay or which is sustainable. And the reality is that the “al fresco” dining program has been an incredibly successful local program and it must continue. 

During the pandemic I convened a working group of local restaurant owners, business stakeholders and local officials to come up with ways to help restaurants meet their current needs as well as craft new ways the city could help them move forward. Together we cut red tape, streamlined permits by putting them online, relaxed parking regulations and embraced what became known as “al fresco,” converting outdoor space into extra (COVID-safe) seating. It was a lifeline for restaurants and was embraced by so many patrons who felt it was simply a better way to dine. We have the weather, why not enjoy it?

I’ve been working directly with key city agencies in charge of this program and I’ve made my point clear – make the al fresco program permanent and make it inexpensive and as easy as possible for businesses that embraced it and invested in their outdoor space during the pandemic. My goal is that if you were approved through “al fresco” you will likely be approved in perpetuity (with safe design of course). My goal was to make that process as seamless as possible and apply it as broadly as possible (keeping health and safety in mind of course). 

Recently state legislation was introduced (AB1217) that aims to achieve the goals I have outlined. While I appreciate this effort, I am skeptical when state officials try to tell local departments in the over 480 cities in California what to do, especially when the existing rules and available space are different in each jurisdiction. 

And as outdoor structures for dining were built, not a single one was inspected by city safety experts. The relaxed code was meant to be temporary and this sort of state law could grandfather in potentially dangerous structures. 

So right now I am working with local experts to figure out how we could ensure safety with little to no burdens on the restaurant owner –  but the last thing anyone wants to see is a law that inadvertently allows people to dine in danger. 

If it is on restaurant property, tables, chairs and structures should remain up. But this can get a bit tricky when seating is in public rights of way like sidewalks or structures are built on street parking. This is especially true in more condensed areas where lots of restaurants are packed against each other. How many parking spaces can be used for tables? How much of the sidewalk can be taken over? And as stated before, how can local departments ensure the safety of structures that were built for temporary use without burdensome costs and requirements? These sort of detailed questions that must be answered.

I believe there is a way to balance our needs in the right of way with our desire to promote and enjoy outdoor dining. I look forward to working together with the community and city departments to realize this goal and am confident that it will happen


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