In a unanimous vote on Sept. 8, the Healdsburg City Council decided that the city’s Open Streets program, the Plaza Street closure between Healdsburg Avenue and Center Street and Center and East streets that allows for expanded outdoor service for restaurant and retail, will remain in place until Jan. 31, 2021.
Councilmember Ozzy Jimenez recused himself from the item due to having financial interests in the downtown corridor with two of his own businesses.
The MarketSpace program, which allows businesses to apply for an outdoor activity permit to create a parklet on a sidewalk or in a parking space was also extended, but it will remain in place until Dec. 31, 2020.
Despite city staff’s recommendation to end the Open Streets pilot run this week, councilmembers felt that a five week trial period of the program interrupted by record heat, fires and smoke wasn’t enough time for businesses, locals and visitors to truly explore, try out and enjoy the program.
“I think reopening Plaza Street is extremely short-sighted … The sample period that we had I don’t think represents the possibility. I think it is important that we continue the Open Streets program indefinitely, if not at least through the holiday season,” said Councilmember David Hagele.
While the street closure runs the city about $4,650 per week for staffing, supplies, cleaning, tents, tables and chairs, interim City Manager David Kiff said the staff recommendation to end Open Streets stemmed from a concern from local retailers about the impact the closure may have on local business.
Kiff said the consensus from local retailers is mixed and that generally the consensus is that the closure of Plaza between Center and East Streets where the Healdsburg Center for the Arts is functioning well.
He said despite several meetings and group meetings with businesses along the Plaza and Center Street core, there is no clear consensus on the closure between Healdsburg Avenue and Center, however, retailers and galleries tend to oppose the extension.
Kiff said restaurants like Duke’s have done well with it, but it’s not fair to say that it may be the sole beneficiary of the program.
“I’ve been down there a number of times, and granted with the heat and the smoke it makes things a little more challenging, but if you’re strictly looking at it from a business standpoint, I don’t know if that is a fair statement to say that Duke’s is the lone beneficiary of that because I think there has been some positive community impacts on that,” Hagele said.
Kiff said Hagele’s statement about the lone beneficiary is probably fair.
“My observations when I was out there is, I think people assumed that those tables weren’t open tables and that you could eat at KinSMOKE and go to the table in front of Duke’s,” Kiff said.
Arguments for the end of the street closure, according to Kiff, included that it wasn’t well used or busy enough and that it didn’t help retailers. Councilmember Joe Naujokas asked if there was any evidence that the closure negatively impacted businesses and while Kiff said there was no hard data collected, anecdotally, Kiff was told once that one business had its first zero dollar day.
Naujokas also asked if any of the businesses along Plaza Street made any creative changes to utilize the street closure to their benefit. Kiff said that some places along Plaza stayed open extra hours or set out clothes racks on the sidewalk, however, based on his conversations with those businesses those extra steps didn’t make much of a difference.
“I think this program hasn’t had enough time to really take root. I think the merchants need more time to explore some creativity with this program. There are way too many opportunities of exploration that haven’t been explored and I think it would be short-sighted for us to end it now,” Naujokas said.
Kiff said he received 10 emails in support of maintaining the street closure and during public comment, the seven residents and business folks who spoke said they too were in support of continuing with the closure.
Bradford Brenner, the owner of the BradfordBrenner Gallery on Plaza Street opined that the Open Streets program hasn’t been given enough time to see whether or not it’s helpful for businesses.
“I think we should try it longer to see if it works,” Brenner said.
Charles Duffy pointed out that for retailers much of their business is during the holiday season in October, November and December and that the program should at least be extended through this year’s holiday season.
Healdsburg Mayor Evelyn Mitchell agreed with her colleagues and with what was said during public comment and made the recommendation along with her councilmembers to extend the closure through the end of January 2021.
“I do think we haven’t given this enough time. As soon as we got the tents set up we had 114-degree heat and a couple of days later we had the fire and now we have heat again and smoke and it really hasn’t given it a fair chance at all,” Mitchell said. “I definitely think we should keep it closed … It is going to bring so much excitement and fun I think to the downtown, especially with the holidays coming so I think we are going to see a whole different dynamic happening as a result of that.”
The MarketSpace outdoor activities permit program wasn’t as contentious among businesses and Kiff said it’s generally been viewed as successful.
He said there are 30 active permits, 17 of which were for the creation of parklets, three of which were for sidewalk use and two of which were for park uses for places like yoga studios. Eight more permits are pending.
While the council decided to extend the program until the end of 2021, they expressed interest in exploring the development of some kind of encroachment permit process so that even after COVID-19, businesses and restaurants could apply for a permit for sidewalk use or for the creation of a parklet space.