Yesterday, Oakland City Councilmembers considered tweaking the Flex Streets Initiative, a pandemic emergency program that helps businesses sell food and more outdoors, to make it permanent.
Launched in May 2020, Flex Streets was designed to assist local businesses when, seemingly overnight, they had to cease nearly all indoor activity under state and local COVID guidelines. Flex Streets made it much faster, easier, and cheaper to get permits to set up outdoor dining and retail outside their brick-and-mortar indoor locations, and even band together to close streets temporarily for outdoor events.
Any type of business can take advantage of Flex Streets, but it’s been used overwhelmingly by restaurants—think parklets, pop-ups, and other kinds of outdoor dining.
Now, though the future of COVID is unknown, city staffers want to capitalize on the popularity of outdoor vending and figure out how to keep Flex Streets going indefinitely. That might mean limiting the number of street vendors operating in one area, securing more funding for additional staffers, doing outreach to encourage more business owners in East Oakland to participate, deciding on a new amount for permit fees (fees have been waived since the program launched), and more.
If passed, these new changes will go into effect by July 3, 2023. If the council chooses not to permanently adopt Flex Streets, the program will end on March 31. Since its inception, food-based business owners have wondered whether Flex Streets would last. The first iteration was set to expire one month after the local COVID emergency order was lifted last June, but the council voted to extend it.
Before Flex Streets, restaurant owners who wanted to set up tables and chairs outside their businesses had to apply for multiple permits, which involved a multi-departmental review. The number of permits issued each year was limited, and any single applicant could apply to close a street for events only two times a year. Under Flex Streets, the permitting process was stripped down to just one permit, and caps on the total number of street vending permits and closures were eliminated.
Who uses Flex Streets?
Surveys and canvassing by the city have shown that Flex Streets-driven revenue has allowed local businesses to reopen, retain employees, and rehire workers that had been let go during the shutdown—but not everyone has benefitted across the board.
“Small businesses in priority neighborhoods [like deep East Oakland] haven’t participated in Flex Streets to the extent that we’ve wanted,” Reginald Bazile, assistant to the director of Oakland’s department of transportation, said during the meeting. “For these reasons, we believe that council should give businesses additional time and space for recovery and for greater participation in this program.”
Through city surveys, “we discovered there was a strong desire for businesses in East Oakland to know more about Flex Streets because many of them were preoccupied with the financial loss [and didn’t know about the program],” said Stephanie Hervey of OakDOT.
Flex Streets staff have not yet answered The Oaklandside’s request for an updated breakdown of where outdoor dining, parklets, and street closures have been permitted happened in the city as a result of the program.
Warren Logan, a former policy director with the mayor’s office who had been involved with the initiative since its inception, provided information to The Oaklandside last February showing that parklets—areas of sidewalks or parking lanes repurposed for outdoor seating—have been particularly popular in North Oakland. Street closures for large-scale events involving multiple businesses have been popular downtown and in Jack London Square. Mobile food vending, which is also supported through the Flex Streets Initiative, has been more popular in East Oakland neighborhoods like Eastlake and Fruitvale.
Councilmember Dan Kalb, who represents North Oakland and voted last year to extend the deadline but did not favor making Flex Streets permanent, said he was in favor of bringing back a permit fee. “The city should get a cut of that if a business is using public property, so this program transitions into a form that makes sense,” Kalb said.
Councilmember Loren Taylor, who represents a portion of East Oakland, asked Flex Streets staff how they will address concerns shared by Verizon and PG&E about problems accessing utility panels that are blocked by parklets and street vendors.
OakDOT’s Bazile said that every business owner is required to make the public right of way accessible, though he acknowledged there have been issues. If Flex Streets is made permanent, Bazile said his team would work to improve relations between permit holders and these companies in the coming months.
The latest proposal was discussed during a meeting of the City Council’s community and economic development committee, and members of the committee ultimately voted to continue talking about it at the next council meeting on March 1st.