Proposal could threaten outdoor dining in Los Angeles

The LA Al Fresco program helped many local restaurants keep their doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic when dining indoors in crowded spaces was deemed unsafe. 

Now, a new proposed ordinance wants to codify some of those rules and make the program permanent, but some restaurateurs say it will make things more difficult for them.

On a chilly Wednesday night in Sherman Oaks, the patio space was bustling at Casa Vega. The restaurant spent thousands of dollars to turn parking spaces into an inviting, secure space. But under the new proposal, the patio Christy Vega's built on the restaurant's private property would need to shrink significantly.

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"I think it's a complete government overreach to tell me that I can't provide this size of a patio. They're limiting it to five spaces, which would seat about 15 people," Vega said.

Wednesday, the Los Angeles Planning Department heard comments almost unanimously in favor of making COVID-era rules that allowed restaurants to serve patrons on parking lots, parklets or sidewalks permanent.

Yeghig Keshishian of the Planning Committee insists that the aim of the city's proposal is to codify the rules and even improve them. 

"What we're focused on based on our jurisdiction is how can we loosen parking restrictions, how do we get rid of various limitations in terms of how much percentage of your restaurant can be used for outdoor dining," Keshishian said. "Maybe some restaurants want to offer it on the second floor versus [on the] ground floor." 

During the pandemic, the LA Al Fresco program helped streamline approvals, fees and paperwork. But with the proposed ordinance, restaurateurs worry that what will be codified is permits, forms, fees and red tape. For example, conditional use permits.

"To have this [setup] I would need one for the patio, I would need one to serve alcohol, and I would need one if I wanted to expand past five spaces. That's three CUP permits. $150,000," Vega said.

Matt Vitello anticipated changes, and removed dining from his parking lot. What he doesn't want to lose is the parklet. 

"Al fresco dining is kind of preferred," he said. "It could also be a little bit of fear too. People still want to try to be as safe as possible, and so they're going to try to sit outside if they can. If it's not too cold, weather permitting. In LA we're very lucky, we're kind of built for outdoor dining."