Why I’ll take Culver City’s safe streets over Santa Monica’s perilous parklets

By Tim Tunks

Downtown Culver City’s spacious outdoor eating areas give plenty of room for diners to space out during the age of COVID

I’ve enjoyed living in Ocean Park for over 40 years, but now the COVID contagion makes me afraid to even walk, let alone dine, on Main Street, and I’m not the only one.

As I outlined in my June 25 Argonaut op-ed on Al Fresco’s misguided mission to rescue Main Street businesses, parklets were the rushed and dangerous stopgap for this pandemic’s economic damage tasked to produce safe outdoor dining. (These “Parklets” are 12-foot-wide outdoor dining platforms built across the gutter in the parking lanes, corralled by barriers or planters.) The rescue plan was hatched with one fatal error — 38-foot-wide thru traffic corridor subtracting nearly two-thirds from the center of what could have been a wide open piazza with plenty of room for social distancing.

Our City’s deciders rightly figured that being outdoors would dilute virus concentrations, making it safer for the public to forgo mask wearing while eating, drinking, talking and laughing. But when it came to social distancing they got stupid.

My main beef is that this plan ignores the fact that the vital element of social distancing to reduce COVID-19 community transmission is — wait for it — distance. In emergency reaction mode, the decision makers didn’t recognize a basic principle of physics — if you want distance you need to have room for it.

The first Al Fresco press releases described 13-foot-wide parklets, 6-foot-wide bike lanes and 12-foot-wide traffic lanes in the 60-foot-wide street, but then I emailed them to ask where they expected to find the four extra feet for the two rows of K-rails? Oops. A couple of hours later, a memo went out saying the parklets would be only 11 feet wide. Then someone must have taken a tape measure and seen that 11 feet was not wide enough for two rows of tables, so the bike lanes shrunk to 5 feet wide and the parklets were set at 12 feet.

The narrow, 12-foot-wide space doesn’t leave much room for the seating plans that state and county COVID regulations require, replacing only a fraction of interior space lost to COVID mitigations. (You have to think that an early site survey with a tape measure and some chalk could have sorted these dimensions when the plan was first considered!)

And exactly how much customer capacity do the parklets actually provide? A few simple measurements and calculations would show what percentage of lost customer seating these parklets replace. But if such studies have been made, their results haven’t been made public. However, you don’t even need an envelope back for calculations to see how a traffic-free Main Street could easily triple the seating capacity while maintaining prescribed social distancing.

With more space required between customers for safer social distancing, lots more room is required to maintain the same capacity. Duh! How could the planners have allowed thru traffic lane advocates to rip such a noisy dirty gulf through the attraction they’d hoped to build?

Unmasked diners are sandwiched between the cement block K-rail barrier and passersby on the sidewalk. Beneficial outdoor breezes do dilute virus transporting aerosols, thereby reducing community transmission, but just being outside isn’t a magic shield against picking up a frequently horrible disease.

The traffic lanes present serious danger to the adjacent seated diners so protective barriers are added for required safety. Cement K-rails lining Main Street’s traffic lanes were chosen as an economical solution and are the most obvious symbol of this poorly considered rescue attempt for the pandemic-threatened restaurants. They are ugly, making the street look like a partially deserted construction zone. This was to be remedied by volunteer local artists squatting in the bike lanes painting bright colors and appetizing images.However producing quality, durable public art with magical “art elves” coming out of the woodwork hasn’t worked out so far, now four months later, and the current plan to enlist the services of local artists doesn’t bode well in my view either.

Last week, a Santa Monica City press release announced a $20,000 grant to the Main Street Merchants Association, the Ocean Park Association and Beautify Earth to engage and administer the long-awaited artistic painting project. Squatting in the bike lanes to do their work, the artists will need protective barriers and lane closures, and maybe some sunshades to perform their tasks, and so far there is no committee head to coordinate those activities. As someone who has organized this type of project before, it is also obvious to me that it will be impossible to apply durable, cleanable artistic paint treatments to all the K-rails by holiday shopping time with the minimal planning and resources as we’ve seen applied so far.

How could city decision-makers miss seeing the vision of a wide open street with overhead string lights and a few space heaters warming clear plastic panel-shielded dining areas? A single lane emergency/service vehicle access passageway could be kept free of obstructions for when it was needed, with that corridor serving push-powered and wheeled walking and micro-mobility devices. The only areas where mask wearing would not be required is for those seated in the designated serving areas. All others, especially sidewalk occupants, would be subject to strict mask enforcement. This would be a simpler set of rules to enforce and would be a lot safer than what we have.

But a recent visit to Culver City’s downtown outdoor dining accommodations gave me hope that city government and local businesses could put together a competent and aesthetically pleasing outdoor dining plan. I saw a dramatic difference between what I regard as Santa Monica’s failure and the success of a nearby city barely more than one-third the size of our fair Santa Monica. The president of the Culver City Merchants Association, Darrel Menthe, recently answered my questions about how their city arrived at their aesthetically pleasing and safe solutions for outdoor dining plan.

The new configuration has closed the westbound lane on Culver Boulevard to most vehicular traffic (one lane remains reserved for buses, bicycles and emergency vehicles) and entirely closed Main Street to cars. With these closures, the majority of Culver Boulevard is available to restaurants for “radically expanded outdoor dining” as described in a press release, and Main Street is fully open to restaurants, businesses and the Tuesday farmers market so that customers and patrons can safely dine and shop. I visited recently and was impressed by these wide open spaces.

“We studied the COVID mitigation guidelines and realized we’d need a big solution to solve this big problem,” Menthe said. “Our executive committee of 12 met frequently on Zoom and we all individually made frequent downtown inspection tours so we were all dealing with the same vision of the geographic, economic and social conditions our downtown presented. Eventually, we came to a meeting of the minds and then enlarged our group to include more concerned business operators and other downtown stakeholders.”

Before long, the group grew to about 40 primary downtown stakeholders who found unanimous consensus that they presented to the city government. The plan was approved the day it was presented. Substantial funding for mitigation was now available and the city was prepared to deal with whatever fallout came from closed street lane disruptions.

Efficient group collaboration leads not only to good decisions but also lots of political power to get them done.

Surprisingly, few complaints about the lane closures have arisen, according to Menthe. It appears that patrons and residents of Culver City have willingly accepted the roadway loss as a good trade-off for the social and economic benefits of outdoor dining. Just last week, downtown Culver City restaurants hosted a socially-distanced “Dress Up and Dine” event in which diners were encouraged to dress up in their Halloween garb and join their community in a safe outdoor event to replace trick-or-treating. Darrel Menthe said, “It’s amazing what you can do if you really try.” Had we closed our Main Street to traffic, we too would have room for the sort of public events that build strong communities.

Instead of bulky, unsightly cement K-rails, Culver City wisely chose lightweight hollow plastic Jersey barriers that could be filled with water where needed for protection from traffic. That these are easily deployed or rearranged when empty meant they could be easily rearranged as experience demonstrated what worked and what didn’t. Our Main Street has several empty parklets behind the K-rails that will need multi-level decisions and forklifts to correct. Culver City’s white plastic Jersey barriers cost half as much as our street painting, but they’ve proven a good solution not requiring art elves to beautify while providing flexibility our painted streets don’t.

These cleanable white objects give Culver City’s outdoor areas a festive clean appearance, making a great first impression and signal to their residents and visitors that downtown will continue to prosper. The slight inconvenience of a few blocked streets was a small price everyone seemed willing to pay. Our Main Street’s first impression last Fourth of July was of a recently abandoned street repair zone, an impression that has deteriorated since as the cement got dirtier and litter has accumulated in the empty parklets in front of boarded up storefronts. Even the K-rails that have been painted have been marred with scuffs from the street already!

It would be nice if I’m proved wrong, but all the smart Vegas money is betting I’m correct on this one — a coat of paint does not solve the essential problem of inadequate social distancing at the heart of Santa Monica’s Al Fresco’s plan.

If I could rewrite history, I’d have Santa Monica take a page out of Culver City’s playbook and try some experimental street closures last spring along with the first partial reopening. With a creative and well-informed public health officer on tap to help keep the published mitigation guidelines preeminent while other decisions were made, the center through traffic lanes configuration would have been rejected early. Recognition that we are in for a long haul would disqualify temporary, ill-conceived solutions in favor of something that could keep the business area vibrant through the winter holidays and into next spring.

Bars and restaurants thrive on the energy of tightly packed patrons drinking lots of booze and having good times. They are unique in that to mitigate them until they are really safe, they’re not bar or restaurant experiences anymore. The COVID pandemic requires a new business model, because the old one is a proven killer.

If fate gave us a mulligan, I hope we’d close streets to traffic, include overhead lighting and heating units along with cleanable protective virus barriers to keep all cozy and safe for the year or more this siege will last. We could have rescued the business life on Santa Monica’s Main Street, but I fear we’ve blown the opportunity. By next January we’ll see if we’ve dealt the death blow or if the promised ‘art elves’ will actually save Main Street. For now, Main Street is dead to me.

Power to Speak is The Argonaut’s guest opinion column for community members to voice their views on local matters and does not represent an editorial position or endorsement by The Argonaut. The opinions, experiences, research and data analysis expressed in this article are the author’s own. Have a unique point of view on a neighborhood matter or a national issue with a local twist? Email kkirk@timespublications.com.