A group of Albany residents who raised money during the early pandemic days that helped Solano Avenue restaurants to build outdoor dining parklets is busy raising more funds to keep the restaurants afloat until restrictions are lifted.
The money raised allowed the residents, who subsequently formed the group Albany Inside Out, to make 15 grants of roughly $1,000 each to help Albany businesses and assist Solano Avenue restaurants to construct outdoor seating areas out of wine barrels, traffic barriers, rope, reflective tape, lumber, signage and other materials in city right-of-ways, such as sidewalks and parking spaces.
However, Albany Inside Out founders Veronica Davidson and Amy Smolens say that more funding is required to help the restaurants keep the parklets looking good or even expand them. So far, the group’s GoFundMe page has garnered slightly more than $2,500 in contributions of the total $10,000 that it requested. Davidson, co-owner of Albany-based microbrewery and taproom Ocean View Brew Works on San Pablo Avenue, and Smolens, who is an outreach coordinator for Albany Strollers and Rollers and a video producer, felt compelled to do something back in May 2020, when it became evident that restaurants on Solano Avenue were facing economic ruin despite a somewhat brisk takeout and delivery business.
“It’s tough asking people for money in these times,” said Smolens. “We will also apply for an Albany Community Foundation grant to retroactively help some restaurants pay for the improvements to their parklets.”
Last May, Albany Inside Out sent a letter to the Albany City Council and other commissions and city staff suggesting that businesses be allowed to use sidewalks and parking spaces to allow patrons to eat outside as indoor dining was not allowed. The letter was originally signed by 16 business owners, according to Smolens and Davidson. It now has more than 50 signatures.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, our business dropped 80%,” said Izat Eliyan, owner of Zaytoon Mediterranean Restaurant & Bar. To jump start business, Eliyan spent roughly $7,000 on materials for a covered outdoor eating space. He and his restaurant staff did all the construction themselves. He says he did not receive any money from the city or Albany Inside Out. According to Eliyan, even with the reopening of indoor dining at limited capacity, he would be forced to close the restaurant without the parklet.
“There are a lot of guests who don’t want to dine inside,” Eliyan said. “We’ve had tables indoors but some people want to wait over 40 minutes to sit outdoors.”
Unlike neighboring cities such as Berkeley and Oakland that provided money to help local businesses go through a permitting process and then build the parklets, Albany had no funds to give but did allow restaurants to move forward with their own designs with limited interference. Davidson helped source wine barrels and lumber to function as barriers for some restaurants and volunteers helped build them. Since those early ad hoc attempts, some business owners have expanded their structures further.
“I think the parklets are just a great response to this situation. It helps support businesses that are really essential to making Solano all that it is,” said Rochelle Nason, an Albany councilmember who supported the parklet program from the beginning and said that every parklet had been approved by the city.
Although the parklets have allowed businesses to survive, they are not without some controversy. As Solano Avenue is a busy commercial district, some residents object to them for taking up valuable parking spaces. And there are some who criticize these outdoor structures for being unsightly and unsafe. Recent incidents where vehicles crashed into parklets highlight the risks. In East Oakland on International Boulevard, La Frontera Mexican Restaurant’s outdoor dining parklet was completely destroyed by an alleged intoxicated driver. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a driver lost control and careened into a parklet at the Nandy Tandy, an Irish bar and restaurant on 24th Street near the corner of South Van Ness in San Francisco. No one was killed, but two people were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
“By and large the businesses have been supportive of the parklets,” said Tod Abbott, a resident of Albany, who is on the board of the city’s chamber of commerce, the Solano Avenue Association, and runs his own home-based web design business. “Albany encouraged folks to do something quick and dirty and not everyone is happy about the results, but it got done.”
Although the city was able to make permitting on Solano Avenue rather pain free, San Pablo Avenue was another matter. Because San Pablo is actually a state highway (State Route 123), it is under Caltrans control and permitting. The agency requires local municipalities to apply for permits and to do all design and site plan work, something the city of Albany decided not to pursue. Thus, there are 18 outdoor dining set-ups for Solano Avenue restaurants and cafes, and none for those on San Pablo Avenue.
Looking to the future, some business owners and customers are hoping that the parklets become a permanent feature of Albany as the reaction has been mostly positive.
“I hope some restaurants keep it,” said Sihle Dinani, a resident of Albany, who was dining with a friend at Zaytoon on a recent April evening. “COVID is not going away anytime soon and I prefer to be outside.”