A version of this story first appeared on Berkeleyside’s sister site, The Oaklandside.
Warren Logan, a policy director in Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office, loves frequenting The Hatch, a bar in downtown Oakland. The bar’s owner Louwenda “Pancho” Kachingwe makes use of a parklet that has been constructed on a large portion of 15th Street, which has been partially closed off to use as a “Flex Street.”
The Flex Streets program, an ambitious plan that was conceived almost a year ago to stimulate the local economy during the pandemic, has given business owners a way to use public space for outdoor dining free of charge. According to Logan, who has worked on Flex Streets since its inception, the program will stay in place until the Alameda County emergency order ends, which could happen once the county drops to yellow tier status, or on June 15, the tentative date for a complete California reopening.
Logan and his team technically have 30 days after the program “sunsets,” or ends, to request from the City Council either a Flex Streets extension or the greenlight to make the program permanent. Food and drink businesses are cautiously waiting to see whether Flex Streets will continue and what form it will take.
We spoke with Logan about if Flex Streets will exist after California reopens, and what the program might look like if it does. “We owe it to the business owners like Pancho of The Hatch on 15th Street who have asked me, ‘Should I buy more tables and chairs? Are you making this permanent?’” Logan said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Will the Flex Streets program remain in effect after we enter the yellow tier or when California fully reopens?
The program will sunset unless we ask the Council for an extension or go back to Council and formally adopt the program.
Our plan is to go back to Council with a formal report of how it’s been going and ask for an extension—not sure how long yet, maybe through the end of the year or another full year—to fully determine how this program has both impacted people and how it might continue to do so as we exit the pandemic.
When people ask me, “Will Flex Streets outlive COVID?”, technically it has to because it has a 30-day sunset period. The City Council has the discretion to remove the program technically at any time, and presuming we’re still in this pandemic, they will keep it for many months longer.
I want to make sure that whatever new, augmented, or [current] program that moves forward is still reflective of what the community needs. We’re doing that work now.
What’s certainly permanent is we are not getting rid of the way of thinking we have applied to this program. We’ve demonstrated that a better way to do business with our community is by reducing paperwork, by making things more accessible, by making things free.
What are the specific steps that you need to take in order to extend the program?
We are already engaging with the community and what that looks like. We’re asking business owners, “How has this program currently affected your business, Is the process by which you are engaging with us productive, and is there room for improvement?
It’s one thing to say, “There are lots of parklets throughout the city, so this must be a success.” I would say that’s one measurement of success. But if the road to getting those parklets is more friendly and accessible for people who are not used to dealing with bureaucrats like me, then that’s also a success.
The second portion of engagement is to ask the neighbors. We’ve heard from some folks that they love it. I also recognize though the traditional challenges of commercial areas are noise complaints. Sometimes people don’t want to hear a bar outside their window. I understand that those are the kinks we need to work out.
Also, the spaces that people want to use for outdoor merchant activity don’t just look like street closures. They also look like using parks or using plazas. One of the things that we’ve already started exploring is how the city can support what are effectively cultural markets. There’s a Flex Street in Chinatown that is a closed street. The second is the Akoma market, which is actually a long-term lease on a city parcel to the Black Cultural Zone, and they support a full market on the weekends. The third that I think a lot of people are talking about now is the Lake Merritt pop-up market.
I share that with you to just provide some context around what the rest of this year is going to look like.
When can the public expect you to present your report to a City Council meeting?
I think that in the next few months our staff will expect to bring at least an extension to the Council. I think we owe both the community and our Council an update on how this is going because we’re reaching almost a year now.
The community should expect a formal discussion at Council to say, “Hey, we want to extend this, do we have your blessing?” After [the potential extension], the next time that we would come back is likely this time next year so there’s another year’s worth of study and engagement.
Even when COVID goes away, it doesn’t change the fact that the businesses in Oakland are still going to be struggling. We want to make sure that we’re not just turning off one of the tools that they are expressing to me and staff has been supporting them.
California is trying to reopen in June. Are you trying to make something happen before then?
Our timeline seems to keep moving up and I think that’s a good thing because it means that we can get out of COVID faster. I would say we are tentatively working towards that deadline because the public has started asking those questions. We owe it to the business owners like Poncho of The Hatch on 15th Street who have asked me, “Should I buy more tables and chairs? Are you making this permanent?”
What does a post-COVID tier system Flex Streets program look like? For example, the permitting combined various permits into one and is free. Will it still be that way?
I hope so. Staff have shared with me that it is, in fact, easier to administer this program. We were able to streamline this process for ourselves. We’ve seen more and more parklets, street closures, and cafe seating month after month. That tells me there’s this latent demand we have been holding back because of the way we were doing business before. We had outdoor dining before COVID. We had what is effectively a major and a minor encroachment permit.
All of these tools existed, they were just much harder to get and way more expensive. The question is, should we really go back to making things more expensive and more challenging for our community to access their own public space?
Do you feel hopeful that the permitting process will be streamlined?
Yes. There is a whole working group [where] all the permitting officers are starting to work together to understand how we can provide better service to the community and how do we make our work less challenging from an administrative standpoint as well.
I share that just because it’s happening across multiple departments and Flex Streets is part of the discussion about this.
We’re currently sitting at a parklet that is occupying a large portion of the street. I’m wondering —post-COVID tier system— will business owners be able to utilize this amount of space in the same way?
I hope we will be able to utilize public space this way. I hope that people will start to demand more spaces like this. It’s California, so people like eating, dancing, and even drinking outdoors. The more that we get a taste of that I can already see that we’re going to see more of it.
We’re sitting in a parklet on 15th and Franklin and I’m looking at another parklet that’s being constructed right now at the next block. That tells me that people are really into this. So yes, I think that we are going to be able to maintain this type of use of space.
What we’ve also learned Is that not everything has to be permanently closed all of the time. This street is permitted to be entirely closed but we actually still allow traffic on one lane and parking at the end. On the weekends, we provided a permit to the business owners to close this entire street. We need to provide a kit of tools to the community to use when they need it.
Will business owners need to dismantle their parklets if the Flex Streets program sunsets?
The general answer would be no, and the caveat would be that we want to work with the business owners to make sure that their parklets are up to code. There are some parklets that are built very differently than others, and we need to work with them to make sure that they stay in good repair. Our agenda is to make the parklets better if the community wants them to stay.
Just to clarify, there’s no date and time that a switch is flipped, that all the parklets just have to go away. Even the sunset clause of the program is not clear on that, which is why we want to clarify it with the business owners now.
Is there a scenario where business owners are able to keep their parklets but, as a result of the Flex Streets program sunsetting, they would have to start paying for their outdoor permits again?
Right now it’s free. That is part of the dialogue we’re having about the extension, to work with our Council on what the fee programs should be right now. If there’s going to be a fee, if at all, one of the active dialogues we’re having right now is what is an equitable fee scale for this program.
Our business community has told us, “Yeah it’s great that it’s free,” but the permitting system being easier helped as well.
But if your readers are worried that, come June, we’re just going to go around and slap people with fees, that’s not our intention. I don’t see a universe where that would happen.
How are you currently managing parking needs in areas where parklets are prevalent?
We engage with business owners and the community to understand their mobility needs and accommodate those needs with the limited curb space that we have. Strategies include providing loading zones, passenger pickup areas, bike parking corrals, and metered spaces.
How are you working to address Flex Streets’ impact on parking?
We will continue to manage parking as normal and work with the neighborhoods to meet their mobility needs. I also question the idea that there is limited parking, given that a number of parking studies have demonstrated parking is available in our commercial districts, just not directly in front of people’s destinations.
Will there be changes to the mobile food vending permitting process?
I don’t have a lot of information for you on the mobile food portion. What I can say is that we have almost overnight brought an entire industry into some version of compliance because before Flex Streets there was no formal permitting program for mobile food vending in Oakland.
We now have a clearer set of engagement protocols for these mobile food vending groups. There have been some challenges throughout the program, like any program, but now we have their contact information and we have a working relationship. We can say, “Hey guys, you can park here.” I hope that we are also providing these business owners a sense of safety so that they don’t feel like they’re working in the shadows.
My takeaway from our conversation is you and your team know what you want to do with this program via the outreach you’ve already conducted, but nothing is quite set in stone yet. When can business owners expect to have a concrete timeline and guidelines for what you’re going to do?
We want to know from our business community if we should continue to move forward. That’s why we have several surveys out. If a business owner were to say, “When am I going to know the roadmap for next steps?”, their first official document would be this extension to the City Council and it will outline how this is going, and here’s where we’re headed.
You’re in the middle of that surveying process right now. When do you expect to wrap that up?
I would say probably by the end of this month or next month. We’re headed towards that [June] deadline one way or another, so it’s going to have to be done by then.
Do you feel pressure to come up with a plan before California potentially reopens in June?
I do, but it’s good pressure. It’s nice to have a deadline. Without that, I think it would have been challenging for us to go back to the City Council any sooner to say, “Here’s what we’re planning,” but now that it’s there, it’s clear that everyone’s kind of focused towards the same goal.
I feel pressure in that I want to make sure that we are acting responsibly for our community. I also recognize this program has been incredibly rewarding and, quite frankly, kind of fun. I like eating outdoors.