Wow – $978,000 for seven “parklets”

9 Nov

Well, as of the early returns, it looks might Measure H has squeaked by. If that’s the truth, then we have our work cut out for us – making sure they spend the revenues wisely. Like Mr. Jones says, you got to learn to take an ass-whooping, so you can live to fight another day. And like Big Worm says, when you mess with my money, you toyin’ with my emotions.

That’s why I attend the day meetings Downtown, that’s where all the action is. Monday the Internal Affairs Committee revisited “parklets”, or “streetlets” – which is apparently a legal distinction. More on that later. I take a lot of notes at these meetings, and when I read back over them, I’m often re-shocked at what these people say, how laissez-faire and let them eat cake they are in regards to the problems of everyday taxpayers.

Council and staff had set aside $300,000 in American Rescue Plan Funding, having received over $20 million for instituting the COVID shut-down. I’ll remind you – Chico is still under a state of emergency, until December 1, having finally cancelled the emergency order at a recent meeting.

Let’s harken back to those early dark days of the COVID shutdown. Let’s remember what this forced shut-down did to Chico. In the early days, city manager Mark Orme and his side-kick Chris Constantin reported that they and other members of staff had tasked themselves with driving around town following our cell phones, and investigating any congregations of parked cars outside of businesses. They were forcibly shutting down businesses, some of which did not recover.

But the economy started tanking so quickly they started declaring certain businesses “essential”. Of course Ann Schwab’s bike store was “essential”. And every restaurant and bar in town suddenly became “essential” as well. Take out dining was encouraged. Almost immediately the city approved “off-site” sales of liquor – drinks, brought to your car in keg cups, along with your dinner. Parklets soon followed – tables were flopped out in parking places, across sidewalks, and the city public works crews installed “K-rails” – those cement buttresses – to keep drivers from trying to park their car in the former parking spaces.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is parklets-one.jpg
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is parklets-two.jpg

Above you see wooden picnic tables behind K-rails, on both sides of the corner. They’re turned on their side to discourage use by non-patrons when the bar is closed. I can’t tell how many spaces are in use here, but so far Staff reports 42 parking spaces have been eliminated in favor of “outdoor dining”. Which, let’s face it, really meant, outdoor consumption of alcohol, and smoking tobacco and pot in areas once prohibited by the Downtown smoking ordinance.

And who wouldn’t have seen this coming – within the first months of the shutdown, alcohol use went through the roof. Chico city staffers reported a corresponding increase in alcohol and sales tax revenues, while the Behavioral Health Department saw a spike in drinking related mental health issues.

While many retail businesses remained closed or under heavy restrictions, the bar and restaurant industry enjoyed a spike in sales, including, “off-site” sales – usually illegal, but allowed in “temporary parklets” under ABC rules. Under COVID, parklets allowed bars and restaurants to enlarge their seating space and “off site sales” because they were under orders to leave tables open, to create space between customers. They made it sound as though the economy was going to collapse without relaxing the rules.

But, as spacing restrictions have been eased and eventually dropped, the parklets have remained and off-site sales have continued, allowing these businesses to actually enlarge their seating capacity instead of just mediating the loss of seats due to spacing requirements.

Council has finally lifted the COVID state of emergency, but Staff and four Downtown businesses have asked that the parklets be allowed to remain. One business owner complained that his building was small and poorly ventilated, and his customers needed fresh air. Another business owner complained that his clientele was older and more susceptible to COVID. Other businesses have chimed in to say they don’t mind the concept but the current parklets are “unattractive” and need to be made “attractive”.

Staff and some members of council thought that could be done with American Rescue Money, so last year they allocated $300,000 toward design and construction of permanent parklets. So far, they’ve spent $25,000 on the design phase, but staff indicated “$300,000 does not begin to cover this…” At a subsequent council meeting, the assistant city manager requested another $1.1 – 1.5 million. At Monday’s Internal Affairs Committee meeting she reported that seven parklets – parking spaces – would cost over $978,000.

She also reported that only four businesses had come forward with “serious” proposals for parklets. We don’t know how many each business requested, but it looks like there are three or four parklets pictured above just for one bar – that’s what, $450-500,000?

Council, staff, and the business owners are aware that not everybody feels this is a good use of American Rescue Plan funding. One business owner declared, “we need to do this ourselves, no more gifts from government…” Others were frankly anxious about using taxpayer money because it might incur prevailing wage. But Kasey Reynolds and staff had a solution – Option 2.

Let’s pick this up tomorrow, on This Old Lady Flew Over the Parklet

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