FREMONT — Outdoor dining spaces created in Fremont during the pandemic can stay.
Fremont officials say they hope the city’s new permanent commercial outdoor patio program will make it easy for businesses with existing patios or dining areas opened during the height of pandemic health order restrictions to keep them, and for other businesses to begin opening them on sidewalks, in street parking spaces or in parking lots.
The Fremont City Council unanimously approved the new rules at its meeting Tuesday, which built on rules from the city’s temporary “Pop-Up Patio” program, which was born out of the pandemic and has been in place for nearly two years, city reports said.
“It’s an exciting opportunity,” Vice Mayor Raj Salwan said Wednesday in an interview.
“This was something we started in the time of COVID, but it’s probably something we should have been doing all the time. We want to have people outdoors, on patios, and create nice environments where you can get together and have some excitement,” he said.
“A lot of people complain Fremont is boring, and we’re trying to change that,” he said.
With the approval of the permanent rules, Fremont joins a growing list of cities aiming to support businesses that have had to figure out how to adapt and survive during frequently shifting health mandates amid the pandemic. Many are still recovering from lost customer traffic.
The owner of any restaurant, bar, salon, gym or other business who wants to apply for an outdoor patio permit would need to pay a $500 fee. However, the council also approved spending up to $40,000 of federal COVID relief money to reimburse any businesses for that fee if they apply for the program by the end of this year.
City planner Courtney Pal said offering the reimbursement for the next roughly seven months would “strike a balance” to lower barriers in the short-term for businesses to participate in the program, but long-term the program fees would cover the cost of staff time needed to oversee it when businesses apply in 2023 and beyond.
The permits, once approved, will be tied to the business, so owners won’t have to reapply or renew their permit annually, and there will be no other city-imposed fees, so long as patios are well maintained.
“We know businesses are still struggling from the pandemic and still facing a ton of other new challenges that are now brought on in the current economic conditions, whether that’s hiring, whether that’s sourcing materials,” Pal said to the council Tuesday.
About 70 businesses took advantage of the city’s pilot “Pop-Up Patio” program at its peak, city reports said, and about half of those businesses, mostly restaurants, are still using their patios.
Of those businesses using the outdoor spaces, most want to keep them going for at least another year, city reports said, citing a survey of businesses from late last year.
Salwan said he would like to see more businesses and restaurants using patios and outdoor spaces.
“The one thing about government in general is everything takes forever. This is one thing that we can do fast, quick, and we already have a template, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
“Now that we’ve streamlined the program, I think it will make it easier for folks, and I think more people will want to participate,” he said.
Mehmet Degerli, owner of Ristorante il Porcino in the Walnut Plaza shopping center, said he was the first to apply for the city’s temporary patio program early in the pandemic, opening a tent in the parking spaces in front of his restaurant with tables, chairs, lights and heaters.
“The customers have liked it,” he said, and it has allowed him to add extra seating.
“Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, all those kinds of days, it’s good to have more seats,” he said,
He plans to apply for a permanent permit soon.
The city said it will offer “substantial flexibility” on design guidelines for the various patios, but there will be requirements to ensure they are accessible for all, comply with safety and building codes, and look nice.
During the temporary program, businesses were allowed to use chain-link fencing and orange molded plastic barriers in their setups, Pal told the council. But for the permanent program, Fremont will require a “higher quality appearance” for materials, such as wood or metallic fencing, wooden pallets, decorative planters or decorative cement barriers.
Pal said the city economic development staff will offer businesses help in choosing materials and getting everything up to code.
Many Bay Area cities have made outdoor dining and business spaces permanent, or have plans in the works.
In Pleasanton, the city is establishing permanent parklet design guidelines, and set up a grant program to help businesses cover part of the costs of building them, following some controversy when the city forced businesses to tear them out for street cleaning earlier this year.
In San Jose, the city is considering permanently banning cars on a portion of San Pedro Street downtown and in other areas to allow its popular pandemic-era “Al Fresco” dining program to continue.
Pal said Fremont hopes the new program will help businesses create more “vibrant spaces that add value for them and add value for people in the city.”
Degerli, of il Porcino, said every restaurant that can have outdoor seating should have it.
“Give the customer a choice,” he said.