The city of Temecula has revised its plan to close Old Town Front Street temporarily to allow restaurants and other businesses to expand their operations outside amid coronavirus-related social distancing standards.
Starting June 24, Front Street will be closed between Second and Fourth streets, giving restaurants space to move their tables onto the sidewalk and into on-street parking spaces, with the main roadway able to be utilized as a pedestrian paseo. Streets intersecting with Front Street will remain completely open, meaning access to any parking lots along those streets will not be affected.
The Temecula City Council approved the revised plan unanimously June 23. The council had previously approved a plan on June 9 that called for Front Street to be closed between Second and Sixth streets, with Fourth and Fifth streets also being closed between Mercedes Street and the Murrieta Creek.
However, Temecula Community Services Director Luke Watson said city staff revised that plan after receiving feedback from nearby businesses, both on the scope of the plan and on the timeline — the closures were scheduled to be in effect June 17. Watson said businesses found that was not enough time to prepare, and that many businesses north of Fourth Street, as well as some from other areas as well, expressed that they did not seek to participate.
“They expressed a number of different concerns, including parking, they expressed the idea that the closure will deter visitors from coming into Old Town, there will be no ability to pick up and drop off purchases, cars going by is essential to their free marketing,” Watson said.
Watson also said some of the complaints were over a perceived lack of communication, though the city did reach out through community meetings, and the matter was presented to the Old Town Steering Committee before being approved by the City Council.
Dozens of public comments on the revised plan were submitted to the City Clerk, with just as many opposed as in favor.
“As an operator of multiple restaurants in old town, I urge temecula to close down front street to vehicle traffic as planned,” one commenter wrote — because of the pandemic, City Clerk Randi Johl had to read all of the comments into the record.
“In the short term,” the commenter continued, “it will allow businesses to offer a safer environment by spreading out our dining rooms even further and expanding upon outdoor seating which is recognized as a safer environment. I understand that there are considerable logistical challenges with residential and vendor deliveries that would require thought and consideration, but the safety of our community should be our foremost priority.”
Another commenter, however, said the street closures were not likely to help with sales at their business.
“I have seen the effect of street closures on our daily sales numbers throughout the years. The impact is always negative,” that commenter said. “In spite of this, I have never expressed opposition to activities that build community spirit and bring traffic to town. This is different. The proposal that a few restaurants can expand their access into the street, causing blockage for everyone else is unfair to the majority of businesses on the street.”
Another said their customers have indicated the street closures would discourage them from coming to Old Town.
“We as merchants have been through enough in the past three months and most of us are just now getting back the business we lost due to COVID-19,” the commenter wrote. “The time for an experimental new old town is not now. We have had 100% of our customers express they will do business elsewhere if the road closes.”
City councilmembers, though, said they felt many of the existing concerns had been addressed, with all streets intersecting with Front Street to remain open, as well as the limiting of the road closures to below Fourth Street and the resulting opening of street parking north of that area. The original plan called for a loss of about 150 on-street parking spaces to be partially made up with about 90 spaces in vacant lots west of Temecula City Hall, but the revised plan will only result in the loss of 70 parking spaces, meaning parking will actually be added to Old Town.
“It seems that it’s evenly divided,” Councilman Mike Naggar said of the overall public opinion. “My beginning, just my general place to start is I’d like to continue with it only because we’ve been talking about doing this for a long time. This is a perfect opportunity to do it and see what comes out of it. If it turns out to be super duper negative, which I dont think thats going to be the case, we can remove it as swiftly as it was implemented, but I really think this whole thing’s gonna be positive.”
The rest of the council concurred.
“This is a pilot program, and if it’s not working, we will pull it back, or we’ll modify it or we’ll change it or we’ll do something,” Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards said. But really what we’re doing is creating that environment that’s like a street festival without any negative connotations that you may have of festivals, like open containers, it won’t be that. So it’s really outdoor dining under the stars in the beautiful surroundings of Old Town.”
Special event and temporary use permits will be required for each business that wishes to participate in the plan, and Watson said staff are offering the permits free-of-charge, over-the-counter at City Hall with same-day approval as long as businesses provide completed applications. Eight restaurants have already had their applications approved, with another three having expressed interest, he said.
Businesses will still be required to get approval for what is essentially a catering permit to participate from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
According to Watson, the plan is for the closures to remain in place until all restrictions on gatherings and social distancing are lifted, or until businesses no longer find the street closure plan useful. The plan would also be lifted if some emergency situation warrants it, he said.
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.