Space for vehicles and space for merchandise are two of the topics on the agenda at tonight’s Palm Springs City Council meeting. Both have ties to the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Up for discussion in both instances is the desire of elected officials and city staff to solve issues facing business owners and their employees: Where can employees park during their shifts, safely and conveniently, especially with parklets now eating up street parking downtown? And how can retail businesses gain greater visibility for their shops with those parklets built on public sidewalks?
Parklets — public seating platforms and other designs that convert sidewalk areas and curbside parking spaces into usable spaces — were allowed last summer to help restaurant owners provide outdoor seating. At the time, indoor seating was not allowed under state regulations put in place as COVID-19 raged.
The result in downtown Palm Springs was a mix of expensive, elaborately-designed structures, and others that one resident described as “shanty shacks on our streets” taking over multiple parking spots. Frustrations mounted when retail shop owners pointed out that while they were not able to display their wares on sidewalks, restaurants were allowed to set up dining spaces free of charge, often hiding the entrances to the retail stores.
Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton, speaking to many retailers and restaurateurs at a meeting Tuesday morning, said the time has come for the city to address those concerns.
“One thing taken away with parklets is that we must help one business without harming another business,” she said. “We need to make sure that whatever we do that helps business A, it does not harm business B.”
An important step in ensuring that equity comes tonight, Middleton said, as the City Council starts discussions around an outdoor merchandise ordinance allowing retailers in all parts of downtown to display merchandise on sidewalks. Currently, those displays are allowed only on Palm Canyon Drive between Amado Road and Alejo Road, and within the Uptown District on Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo Road and Vista Chino.
That discussion will be informed by a report from city staff which contains examples of how other cities are allowing retailers to display merchandise on sidewalks.
The parking issue has lingered for years, but worsened during the past 16 months. Downtown business owners said Tuesday that as visitors flocked to the city during the pandemic, using more and more parking spots, many of their employees have been forced to park blocks away from where they work, resulting in long walks in the heat during the day, and increased dangers trekking back to their vehicles at night.
“They are basically sitting ducks for anybody who wants to do anything to them late at night,” said Mindy Reed, owner of Zin American Bistro, speaking about safety concerns for her employees.
Parklets appear to put an additional squeeze on available parking spaces for visitors and downtown employees alike, business owners said, adding that unless city leaders step up for their workers the issue is likely to remain unresolved.
“The needs of employees have been the least focused on over the years,” Joy Brown Meredith, owner of Crystal Fantasy on Palm Canyon Drive, said Tuesday. “It’s a very complicated process to park downtown and I’m hoping we don’t have to resort to pay for parking.”
Nobody is proposing that scenario. However, without an update to the city’s off-street parking requirements — last updated in 1988 — exactly where and how much parking should be downtown remains a bit of a guess.
“The city’s existing parking ratios are largely based on peak parking demand and have not been assessed for relevance to local conditions in over 30 years,” city staff wrote in a report prepared for tonight’s meeting. “Increased access to public transit, the development of rideshare services, increased telecommuting practices, and reductions in vehicle use are trends that reduce the need for parking spaces and necessitate a reevaluation of existing parking ratios.”
Councilmembers are expected to instruct staff to begin that reevaluation tonight, working with members of the Palm Springs Planning Commission to bring a draft parking ordinance amendment to them for a future vote.