Parklets are here to stay. Will East Oakland get more out of it?

On Tuesday, the city council unanimously approved a plan to make permanent the Flexible Streets Initiative, a pandemic emergency program that helps businesses sell food and more outdoors. This proposal was discussed last week at a meeting of the City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee.

The program will not be exactly the same in the future. There will be limits on the number of street vendors that can operate in an area, businesses will have to pay for permits in the future, and more. The changes will take effect by the end of the year.

Board members also said they would like to see more East Oakland businesses get involved in setting up parklets, pop-up sites, mobile vending machines, and more. Flex Streets staff say they want it too. But city surveys show that few East Oakland stores indulge in outdoor dining through Flex Streets. We reached out to a few store owners to find out what isn’t currently working for them in this program and what they would like to see in the future.

‘We want to make the outside more beautiful’ – and more awareness could help

Warren Logan, a former policy director in the mayor’s office who had been involved with the initiative since its inception, provided information to The Oaklandside last February showing that while parklets – areas of sidewalks or parking lanes redeveloped into outdoor seating – have been popular in North Oakland, they have been much less common in other parts of town.

Street closures for large-scale events involving multiple businesses have been popular in the city center and at Jack London Square. Mobile food vending machines, which are also supported by the Flex Streets initiative, have been more popular in East Oakland neighborhoods like Eastlake and Fruitvale.

Outside CocoBreeze, a Trinidadian-owned restaurant serving Caribbean specialties, on the High Street in East Oakland. Credit: Ricky Rodas

Annabelle Goodridge, owner of the Trinidadian restaurant CocoBrise on the High Street, is one of the few shopkeepers in her neighborhood to have taken advantage of Flex Streets. Cocobreeze has been offering al fresco dining since Goodridge and her daughter Merissa Lyons opened the restaurant in 2020. “I support the program continuing,” Goodridge told The Oaklandside hours before the board vote.

CocoBreeze has managed to carve out a niche among the local Caribbean community in the Bay Area, thanks in part to the festive environment created by the mother-daughter duo. For Valentine’s Day, Goodridge staff draped the alfresco dining sets with elegant white, black and red tablecloths. Large red bows were tied to the chairs and bright pink flags hung above the dining area.

The restaurant still makes most of its money from take-out sales, but Goodridge says alfresco dining helps make the whole street more appealing to passers-by, which is also good for its neighbors Blacksheep Barbershop and The People’s. Store. “We want to spruce up the exterior,” she said.

Despite the success of Flex Streets in areas like North Oakland and downtown, store owners like Goodridge say it hasn’t worked in East Oakland because there hasn’t been enough awareness.

“Business owners probably don’t apply because they don’t know they can use it [for outdoor dining]“, said Goodridge.

It’s the case for Restaurant San Fransisco, a small restaurant on the corner of International Boulevard and 84th Avenue in deep East Oakland. Owner Jose Argueta, who has lived in Oakland for 34 years and owned his restaurant for 16, said he knows about outdoor dining but was unaware of Flex Streets or the council meeting city ​​yesterday. “How are we going to hear about it if we work? Argueta said. “For me and other people here, we don’t know how to navigate the system.”

Few to no business owners called into the meeting to discuss Flex Streets, let alone those with stores in East Oakland.

Security concerns

While the council deliberated, Argueta cleaned up after a long day of preparing breakfast and brunch. The restaurant serves a mix of American dishes and Salvadoran and Mexican breakfasts. The interior of the San Francisco restaurant looks like a cross between an old American diner and a Salvadoran pupuseria. Images of food products replace a traditional written menu. Patrons lounge in dark green leather booths and eat at faux emerald countertops, and the walls are lined with photos and ornaments from Argueta’s home country.

The interior of the San Francisco restaurant is decorated with photos of El Salvador and Christian religious iconography. Credit: Amir Aziz

The only thing Argueta’s restaurant doesn’t have is a small park or space for outdoor dining. The sidewalk on this stretch of International Boulevard is wide enough for a few tables or a small park, but Argueta is all too aware of how often he and others nearby hear gunfire. “If I’m building outside,” Argueta said, “I’m responsible for people’s safety.”

Treva Reid, a District 7 council member who represents a large swath of deep East Oakland, says her staff has spoken with other business owners on International Blvd. late last year and heard similar sentiments. “I can’t tell you that a business owner [we’ve spoken to] asked Flex Streets, and part of that is because we haven’t been able to reassure our businesses of the security they deserve,” Reid told The Oaklandside.

Businesses in both East and West Oakland also told the city that traffic safety issues along busy streets deterred them from participating in flex streets. La Frontera, a Mexican restaurant on International Boulevard in Fruitvale, was one of the only establishments in its neighborhood with a sidewalk park until a motorist crashed into it in June 2020, just a week after the Mayor Libby Schaaf held a press conference at the restaurant to promote the program.

“We were going to rebuild it, but the expenses were too high,” said La Frontera owner Valentino Carillo. Building another parklet could have cost between $2,000 and $3,000, Carrillo says. Instead, he decided to invest the money in building a large parklet for Que Rico, his downtown Oakland nightclub, where he frequently sells quesabirria tacos and hosts DJ events.

Carrillo would still like to bring a parklet back to La Frontera and wants other Fruitvale business owners to be able to participate in Flex Streets, but “there has to be a way to make them safer in this area,” he said. declared.

Before more businesses in his neighborhood offer outdoor dining, Reid thinks the city needs to invest in other programs that will reduce speeding along the International Avenue corridor. A proposal to install surveillance cameras along commercial corridors like MacArthur and International will be discussed at a council meeting on March 15. the issues we are trying to address.

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