ST. PETERSBURG — The temporary permits that allow businesses along Central Avenue and Beach Drive to place dining tables on street parking during the coronavirus pandemic will expire next month.
Some businesses along those bustling corridors are celebrating getting their parking spaces back. Others, either wary of resuming indoor seating or whose outside seating is popular with patrons, want them to stay.
St. Petersburg’s planning and development services director, Elizabeth Abernathy, said 19 businesses are currently using a temporary permit, though some businesses share one space. All but two are on Central Avenue.
“Certainly the responses back have been that they would like to keep those,” Abernathy said. “Other businesses would like to see the temporary program end. The concern was about not having parking for other businesses that was detrimental to business operations.”
She said the city is exploring more permanent solutions that would take aesthetic concerns into account as well as safety measures. The concrete barriers were never meant to be permanent, but a raised platform could be an option.
But a permanent program would mean a change in the city’s code, and that wouldn’t happen by the fall, Abernathy said. However, the city could work through its existing sidewalk seating framework for a temporary solution.
Under that plan, sidewalk cafes are charged fees by the seats. Or, the city could use portions of private parking lots for outdoor seating, which wouldn’t take up city-owned parking.
Abernathy says it’s hard to calculate what the financial impact has been to the city through lost parking spaces that were metered or used as valet for a fee during the upheaval of COVID-19. She said businesses were not charged to use the barriers for outdoor seating, which were already owned by the city and used for annual events such as the Christmas tree in Vinoy Park and the St. Petersburg Grand Prix.
City Council member Gina Driscoll said some blocks may have an open space suitable for shared community seating. She said it’s possible traditions like First Friday, which close off one block of downtown St. Petersburg to cars once a month, could be brought to other areas of the city as a “pop-up” opportunity.
“One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that people really like to be outside,” said Driscoll, whose district includes Central Avenue east of Interstate 275. “It’s all about balance.”
Matt Lettelleir, the vice president of advocacy for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said some businesses would love to see those permits extended as those tables weren’t popular in the summer heat but may be more in demand as the weather gets cooler.
“We’re happy that the opportunity was extended until now,” he said. “We wish that it could extend into the nicer weather months. We expect that increased outdoor seating will happen in the future under some iteration.”
For Bandit Coffee Co., which has stayed completely closed to indoor business during the pandemic, the extended outdoor seating has been a lifeline, said owner Sarah Weaver.
The so-called “parklet” in front of their shop consists of two large concrete barriers, a series of metal barricades, a couple of parking stumps and some traffic cones. Inside the cordoned-off space, four large picnic tables provide seating for at least 16 people. The area — which sits shaded by a large oak tree — has become one of the city’s most popular meeting hubs and weekend mornings are known to get especially busy.
Weaver said she was informed of the city’s plan to remove the barriers in a letter last week.
“It was pretty jarring to hear that the program was being discontinued without any conversation or any opportunity for feedback from the businesses,” Weaver said.
Weaver said she is starting a petition for other local businesses that oppose the removal, which she called premature in light of the Delta variant’s continued spread in the region.
“We’re not over this,” Weaver said. “It’s not due time to make changes when our numbers, locally, are still so high.”
Michael Stewart, who owns The Lure restaurant in St. Petersburg, called news of the parklet removal a “bummer,” but said the outdoor seating was more of a sales bonus at this point.
“Our restaurants are completely packed,” Stewart said. “There was a bump when the variant came out for about three weeks, but we’re back to full reservations and full waiting lists.”
Some retail shop owners said they didn’t mind the loss of a few parking spots, and that the increased outdoor dining helped attract more customers. But others voiced relief that the congested downtown area would be getting back some additional space for visitors to the area.
“Thank goodness,” said Katie Deits, the executive director of Florida CraftArt. “St. Pete doesn’t have enough parking spaces to begin with. For the retail businesses and nonprofits, it’s really affected our sales.”