Outdoor Business Use

As this blog has professed since the outset of the pandemic, the City of Mill Valley has been an unrelenting supporter of the business and nonprofit communities who’ve been ravaged over the past 16-plus months.

In June 2020, as Mill Valley’s business owners and nonprofit directors were digesting the ever-changing set of restrictions and guidelines necessary to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, the City of Mill Valley – the City Council, the City Manager and staff – threw dozens of businesses a much-needed lifeline.

Fourteen months later, the City and the Mill Valley Chamber have diverged a bit on how best to proceed through the months ahead as we navigate the surging delta variant, new mask indoor mask recommendations and the general unease that looms over us despite being in a county that boasts a whopping 86% vaccination of residents over the age of 12 (a crucial distinction).

At its August 2nd City Council meeting, the City is proposing to terminate the urgency ordinance it passed in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak on Nov. 30, as well as the outdoor business program it created that has been a lifeline for dozens of businesses across myriad industry sectors. Many popular, outdoor features that have blossomed amidst the pandemic would go away at the end of November.

Because of the City’s early, County-leading efforts, when COVID-19 regulations were shifting beneath the feet of businesses with regularity, Mill Valley businesses had options. Hair and nail salons were among the sectors that faced the most economic whiplash – open one week, shut down the next, able to operate only if they brought their chairs and stations outside. Those businesses, hanging on by a thread in the most dire of economic circumstances, did just that.

So did gyms and fitness facilities, hosting workouts and spin classes outdoors. Restaurants, faced solely with takeout and delivery as a revenue stream for lengthy stretches of time, gravitated quickly to the outdoor dining options allowed by the city, from the private use of private space, private use of public space and, in the case of the Depot Plaza and a portion of Miller Avenue, public use of public space.

All of those options were available under the City’s urgency ordinance and the outdoor business program it spawned. The City and Chamber both agree that we need a long-term policy and ordinance around outdoor business uses like those mentioned above, including parklets that have become such a popular phenomenon that San Francisco just made them permanent. The City and the Chamber disagree, for the moment, on how to get there. We want businesses to have another year to recover, innovate, and inform long-term strategies. 

The Chamber has asked the City not to terminate the ordinance, but to extend it until Nov. 30, 2022, providing runway for business and nonprofit leaders to continue to innovate their way through adversity. There’s minimal risk to extending it. Under the existing program, businesses and nonprofits still have to file applications to utilize options within the program. If there are flaws in the applications, the City still has the tools to approve or deny them as needed. As the Chamber sees it, Mill Valley businesses need the runway and visibility to plan ahead. If fewer businesses take advantage of those options in 2022 than did in 2021, no harm done.

The City also needs time to create a program whereby businesses are able to apply for longer-term, post-pandemic outdoor uses – sidewalk tables, parklets, all manner of creative outdoor uses as needed. If you create a new program before the end of 2022, then that would be the time to terminate the emergency ordinance, not now.

The City of Mill Valley gave its business and nonprofit community a chance to survive. Our businesses have largely done just that, admirably managing seemingly insurmountable turbulence in doing so. There are many known obstacles ahead, including an ongoing staffing shortage and a fiercely competitive marketplace as we work our way out of the pandemic. There are also very likely obstacles ahead that are unknown.

This discussion is not necessarily about the popular Miller street closure downtown. The Chamber is working with the City to proactively scale back the frequency of the Miller street closure and enliven them as “events” as opposed to a weekly thing.

The Chamber’s major priority and most critical request is to extend the urgency ordinance and outdoor business program for one year. Community members have a variety of ways to make their voices heard:

  • Show up in-person to the Council meeting on August 2 at 6:30pm (yes, they are back in-person – here’s the staff report).
  • Submit an eComment that will be read aloud at the meeting. Email cityclerk@cityofmillvalley.org to submit an eComment. (250-word limit).

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