Outdoor Business Use

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The Mill Valley City Council unanimously rejected a proposal to terminate its COVID-19 urgency ordinance, as well as its related outdoor business program that has been a lifeline for dozens of businesses across myriad industry sectors. Instead, the Council pivoted, agreeing to extend the ordinance through at least June 30, 2022, a nod toward the massive popularity of the outdoor business uses – including al fresco dining, outdoor spin classes and much more – that have become some of the few bright spots of the past 16 months.

They did so in front of a packed Council chambers at City Hall Monday, as business owners and residents turned out in droves to express their support for the program, particularly the necessity of maintaining it given the latest turbulence driven by the delta variant surge and a subsequent indoor mask mandateFaced with vocal, widespread support from attendees and hundreds of letters submitted in advance in favor of extending the ordinance, Mayor John McCauley proposed a compromise of setting June 30, 2022 as the termination of the ordinance, and his fellow councilmembers backed the idea, noting that they could simply vote to extend it at that time if necessary.

“We wouldn’t be here having this conversation if the Chamber hadn’t been such a strong advocate – so insistent on getting a long ramp into the future,” McCauley said. “I found it (to be) asking too much. The Chamber has been doing its job. It’s an advocate for the restaurants and the other businesses in town, and boy, you’ve definitely been advocating.”

Councilmember Urban Carmel said the current moment was too precarious to end the program. “We have no idea what’s going to happen here in the future. If we end the program and the virus comes back, we’re really going to be messing things up. It’s really clear that this is an incredibly popular thing that we’ve come upon. We can sit outside and enjoy being outside. It wouldn’t be appropriate to remove it right now.”

Several councilmembers also expressed support for the idea of getting to work soon on a program whereby businesses are able to apply for longer term, post-pandemic outdoor uses like sidewalk tables, parklets and other creative outdoor uses. Mill Valley Planning Commissioner Kevin Skiles said that he and his fellow commissioners are ready to help create such a policy, one “that is long lasting and responds to the needs of the community and businesses to have parking available but also to have the vitality that we’ve all really enjoyed, how vital the downtown has become due to the (outdoor business program). The Planning Commission is fully committed to being a partner in that process.”

Carmel noted that while few traffic and parking issues have arisen over the past 16 months, future impacts could be mitigated by the fact that the outdoor uses to date have been well dispersed throughout town, and applications for future uses could be dispersed as well. Vasco owner Paul Lazzareschi told the Council that he was interested in exploring a more permanent outdoor dining area in the future. “How can I do anything if I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Please don’t do another knee-jerk reaction.” 

Steve Stricker, a Mill Valley resident and physician in chief at Kaiser Permanente, said the delta variant surge and the remaining 64,000 Marin residents who remain unvaccinated, either because they are to young to do so or have chosen not to, makes now “the wrong time to send the signal that the Council is ready to do anything to outdoor dining. And as a longtime resident, I do think the outdoor dining as a whole has been a boon for Mill Valley. I praise the restaurants that have made it through this pandemic.”

Longtime Mill Valley resident Stuart Corvin reminded attendees that Mill Valley already has an unrivaled, vitality-laden outdoor gathering space in the Depot Plaza. “We have a square that no one else has in Marin,” he said. “Downtown is where we all meet. But the square alone won’t do it. It’s the people. It’s the vitality. And if those downtown restaurant, bars, coffee shops are limited inside, then that vitality will disappear — just as it did when we sat in our homes for three months during the beginning of COVID.”

Restaurateurs agreed. “The rollercoaster isn’t over – it really isn’t,” Bungalow 44 co-owner Peter Schumacher said. “The emotional wounds from all of these many months are still there. Outdoor dining has been our security blanket. Indoor may get shut down again. It’s brutal.”

“We have five restaurants in the Bay Area and, over our 20 years in business, we have never been brought to our knees like we have been in the past 16 months,” said Lara Trupelli, co-owner of Gravity Tavern, as she presented a huge stack of flyers signed by hundreds of customers in favor of keeping the outdoor business use program alive. 

Dave Marshall, co-owner of the 2am Club, said the program “has truly saved us, along with help from our landlords, grants, PPP loans and some personal small business loans. We ask that you keep this program going into the future.”

Although restaurants have been the dominant public face of the outdoor business program, many other sectors have benefited from it as well, from hair and nail salons to an array of fitness facilities.

Ronnie Unger and Evan Wolf, owners of The Store and The Local, told the Council that the program has had cascading positive impacts for businesses beyond those taking advantage of it. “It helped not just the restaurants but everybody,” said Unger, noting that multiple retailers downtown have opened second locations during the pandemic because community support has been so robust. “It’s been amazing see people coming into town specifically for that reason. It has trickled down all the way around town. Mill Valley Market is busy, we’re busy. We can’t lose that now. People absolutely love these. It gives our community hope.”

East Blithedale resident Andrea Ryerson called the program, and the vibrance it has spawned, “the best thing that’s happened in Mill Valley. We learned from another happy accident” – the 1992 earthquake forced the Embarcadero Freeway to be taken down, “which has transformed the San Francisco waterfront as a destination. If you rescind this program, it would be the equivalent of putting back up the Embarcadero Freeway.”

Councilmember Sashi McEntee noted that, given the extension, businesses who hadn’t yet applied for an outdoor business use, parklet or otherwise, would now be able to file new applications knowing that they have until at least June 30 to reap the benefits of doing so.

As for the popular Miller street closure downtown, the Council agreed to let the Business Vitality Panel, which includes McCauley, Carmel and City and Chamber staff, manage the process of reducing the frequency of the street shutdowns. The parties have been working in concert to enliven them as special events.

“I have, for a long time, been very concerned about the long-term viability of Mill Valley,” Carmel said. “That is true for a lot of small towns in America. It’s time to think way outside the box and to be very innovative about the way we think about our businesses in the future. We are on the path to discovering what we can do better.”

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