Last May, the city of Oakland embarked on an ambitious plan to stimulate the local economy during the pandemic by making it easier for businesses to use sidewalks and streets for outdoor commercial activities like dining. The program, known as Flex Streets, lets local business owners apply online for free permits to operate outdoors.
Now nine months into Flex Streets, The Oaklandside reached out to several small business owners and city officials to learn more about how it’s been working and what the future holds for the program.
A streamlined permitting process has led to more ‘parklets’
In October, the Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District took advantage of Flex Streets to host a large outdoor street festival with local vendors. Shifra de Benedictis-Kessner, the BID’s executive director, considers that event a success and applauded Flex Streets for its intentionality.
“This is the first time I have seen a program created [by the city of Oakland] for the express purpose of helping support businesses and bring in revenue,” de Benedictis-Kessner said.
The city has been using federal CARES Act funding to provide resources to local businesses during the pandemic in the form of relief grants and informational webinars. But de Benedictis-Kessner said the local Flex Streets program has played an important role in allowing many Oakland businesses to stay afloat, and thinks it can continue to do so if early kinks in the program are smoothed out. “If they can get better at accomplishing that goal and improving aspects of the program, it would be an amazing accomplishment for the city of Oakland.”
Warren Logan, a policy director in Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office who has worked on Flex Streets since its inception, said the city responded as fast as it could to the business community’s needs, once the severity of the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic became clear.
“We rewrote four or five permit programs practically overnight and really pulled out every stop we could find, as quickly as possible,” Logan told The Oaklandside. “We said to business owners, ‘Try your best to fill this short form out, give us your name, an idea of what you’re doing, and we’ll go from there.’”
Approximately 103 permits have been approved so far through the Flex Streets program, according to Logan. “Parklets”—areas of sidewalk or parking lanes repurposed for outdoor seating—have been particularly popular in North Oakland. Entire street closures for large-scale events involving multiple businesses have been popular downtown and in Jack London Square also. Mobile food vending, which is part of the Flex Streets program but not counted in the number of distributed permits, has been popular in East Oakland neighborhoods like Eastlake and Fruitvale.
Prior to Flex Streets, restaurant owners who wanted to set up tables and chairs outside their business had to apply for a minor encroachment permit. The permit was rather expensive, said Logan, but the response from business owners to the new permitting process has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s not perfect but the fact that we were able to meet this need so quickly is something that we’re extremely proud of,” he said. Oakland only had about four parklets before the pandemic but now, said Logan, “we have dozens of them, and that means something.”
The city is using federal CARES Act funds, he said, to have local organizations provide technical assistance to small businesses that need help setting up parklets.
Operating outdoors isn’t easy for all businesses
For some small business owners, the process of utilizing Flex Streets hasn’t been as easy as they hoped, according to de Benedictis-Kessner, whose BID has been helping small businesses in Temescal and the Telegraph commercial corridor apply for the permits.
“There were many months during the summer where there was little to no communication” between the city and business owners interested in getting a permit, she said, because no specific person was listed as the main point of contact for Flex Streets on the city’s website.
Communication eventually improved, said de Benedictis-Kessner, but helping business owners get a permit in late-May and June shortly after the program began was tricky.
Still, she hopes the program will continue to be made available to local businesses and improved, even after the pandemic subsides. “I hope it does become a permanent program and that the amazing engineers and planners who worked on this will prioritize responsiveness and communication,” she said.
Ju Hong, manager of Daol Tofu, a Korean restaurant in Temescal, initially didn’t know how to apply for a Flex Streets permit. With the help of the Temescal Telegraph BID, he applied for one late last summer and began outdoor dining in October. He described the entire process as “very quick and easy.”
After two months of being unable to operate outdoors due to the recent winter surge of COVID-19 cases and stay-at-home order, Hong reopened Daol Tofu for outdoor dining last week. He expects it will continue to be a crucial part of his business, since some customers may be uncomfortable with dining indoors for the foreseeable future, even as more people get vaccinated. “It’s slowly helping our business,” Hong said, “and we are grateful to be serving customers again.”
Street safety has been a concern for other businesses in Oakland. Mayra Chavez, who co-owns El Huarache Azteca, a Mexican restaurant on International Boulevard in Fruitvale, told The Oaklandside that outdoor dining on the street would be potentially hazardous. “International is a street where, on the weekends, you have people riding motorcycles on the sidewalk,” Chavez said.
La Frontera, another Mexican restaurant on International Boulevard, is one of the only establishments in that corridor with a sidewalk parklet, according to Valentino Carrillo, the owner. La Frontera was one of the first businesses to apply for a Flex Streets permit in May, and Mayor Libby Schaaf held a news conference at the restaurant in June to promote the program. A week later, an incident occured when a person riding a motorcycle drove through their seating area.
“We had to put everything away for awhile, then we put everything back and haven’t had any issues since,” Carrillo said. “I think International Boulevard can really benefit from having more businesses with parklets.”
At El Huarache, Chavez has been utilizing patio space behind the restaurant for outdoor seating. Her landlords have allowed her to use the area during the pandemic, but she doesn’t expect the opportunity to last and said applying for a Flex Street permit, despite her concerns, is a possibility.
Chavez noted that Latino immigrant business owners on International Boulevard face barriers like language and access to technology, which can make it harder to apply for city permits.
“At the very beginning there was a big effort to really reach out to the Spanish-speaking community, but it’s also hard when there’s no number listed and there’s only email,” Chavez said. “A lot of people here don’t know how to access their emails but a lot of the info about COVID resources are distributed by email.”
While retail shop owners can also apply for a Flex Streets permit, the program has primarily benefited restaurants and bars. Yoga instructor Laura Camp, who owns Flying Studios in Temescal, said she never considered applying because conducting classes on the sidewalk would be impractical. Instead, Camp repurposed her studio as a child care business where she offers “kids camps” and fitness classes for children, including her own 8-year-old daughter.
Camp has also continued to teach yoga classes outdoors, just not through the Flex Streets program. She teaches them at Bushrod Park, and accepts donations from students for her lessons. “I think one of the silver linings of this hard situation has been outdoor teaching,” Camp said. “My students say, ‘When you open up your studio again I hope you keep the outdoor classes because it’s so awesome.’” Still, there are downsides such as unpredictable weather, prompting Camp to cancel classes when there is even a slight downpour.
De Benedictis-Kessner said it’s important to discuss the future of outdoor business in Oakland due to the number of business owners that will have to contend with paying off months of overdue rent. “Once this emergency is declared over, they will have to increase their revenue above pre-pandemic levels to meet their costs and survive,” she said.
Logan, the city staffer who runs the program, agrees and said he has been speaking with business owners to assess how Flex Streets can evolve. As it currently stands, the program will stay in place until the Alameda County emergency order ends, meaning once the county drops to yellow tier status in the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” risk assessment system.
“From day one, many of the businesses have told us, ‘Please give us a warning if this is going to go away,’” Logan said.
Currently, there are no concrete plans to extend Flex Streets, though Logan hopes some version of the program will continue to make operating outside more accessible.
“The important part is that we’ve proven to people and to ourselves that we can show up for our businesses and residents,” Logan said. “That’s the part that needs to be made permanent—the way in which we function as a government more productively.”