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On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously approved a plan to make permanent the Flex Streets Initiative, a pandemic emergency program that helps businesses sell food and more outdoors. This proposal was discussed last week during a meeting of the City Council’s community and economic development committee.
The program won’t be exactly the same going forward. There’ll be limits on how many street vendors can operate in one area, businesses will have to pay for permits going forward, and more. Permit fees will be collected starting July 2023, and fees for installations on private property don’t begin until December 2023.
Councilmembers also said they’d like to see more businesses in East Oakland get involved in setting up parklets, pop-up sites, mobile vending, and more. Flex Streets staff say they want that too. But surveys conducted by the city show that few shops in East Oakland are engaging in outdoor dining through Flex Streets. We checked in with a few shop owners to hear about what doesn’t currently work for them about this program, and what they’d like to see going forward.
“We want to make the outside beautiful”—and more outreach could help
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 while parklets—areas of sidewalks or parking lanes repurposed for outdoor seating—have been popular in North Oakland, they’ve been far less common in other parts of the city.
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.
Annabelle Goodridge, the owner of Trinidadian restaurant CocoBreeze on High Street, is one of the few shop owners in her neighborhood who’s taken advantage of Flex Streets. Cocobreeze has been offering outdoor dining since Goodridge and her daughter Merissa Lyons opened the restaurant in 2020. “I’m in favor of making the program permanent,” Goodridge told The Oaklandside hours before the council vote.
CocoBreeze has managed to amass a steady following among the local Caribbean community in the Bay Area, thanks in part to the festive environment the mother-daughter duo creates. For Valentine’s Day, Goodridge’s staff draped the outdoor dining sets with elegant white, black and red table cloths. Big red bows were tied to the chairs and the bright pink flags were strung high above the dining area.
The restaurant still makes most of its money through takeout sales, but Goodridge says outdoor dining helps make the entire street more attractive to passersby, which is also good for her neighbors Blacksheep Barbershop and The People’s Store. “We want to make the outside beautiful,” she said.
Despite the success of Flex Streets in areas like North Oakland and downtown, shop owners like Goodridge say that it hasn’t worked in East Oakland because there hasn’t been enough outreach.
“Business owners probably aren’t applying because they don’t know they can use it [for outdoor dining],” Goodridge said.
That’s the case for San Francisco Restaurant, a small diner on the corner of International Boulevard and 84th Avenue in deep East Oakland. Owner Jose Argueta, who has lived in Oakland for 34 years and owned his diner for 16 years, said he knew about outdoor dining but wasn’t aware of Flex Streets or yesterday’s City Council meeting. “How are we going to hear about it if we’re working?” Argueta said. “For me and some other people around here, we don’t know how to navigate the system.”
Little to no business owners called in during the meeting to discuss Flex Streets, let alone those with shops in East Oakland.
While the council was deliberating, Argueta was cleaning up after a long day of preparing breakfast and brunch. The restaurant serves a mix of American diner food and Salvadoran and Mexican breakfast dishes. San Francisco Restaurant’s interior looks like a cross between an old American diner and a Salvadoran pupuseria. Pictures of food items take the place of a traditional written menu. Customers lounge in dark green-colored leather booths and eat on faux emerald countertops and the walls are lined with pictures and ornaments from Argueta’s home country.
The one thing that Argueta’s diner doesn’t have is a parklet or space for outdoor dining. The sidewalk on this stretch of International Boulevard is wide enough for a few tables or a small parklet, but Argueta is too aware of the frequency with which he and others nearby hear gunshots. “If I build outside,” Argueta said, “I’m responsible for people’s safety.”
Treva Reid, District 7 councilmember who represents a large swath of deep East Oakland, says her staff spoke with other business owners on International Blvd. late last year and heard similar sentiments. “I can’t tell you that any business owner [we’ve spoken to] has asked for Flex Streets, and a part of that is because we have not been able to reassure our businesses of the safety they deserve,” Reid told The Oaklandside.
Businesses in East and West Oakland have also told the city that road safety problems along busy streets discourage them from participating in Flex Streets. La Frontera, a Mexican restaurant on International Boulevard in Fruitvale, used to be one of the only establishments in its neighborhood with a sidewalk parklet until a motorist crashed into it in June 2020, just one week after Mayor Libby Schaaf held a news conference at the restaurant to promote the program.
“We were going to rebuild it, but the expense was too high,” Valentino Carillo, La Frontera’s owner said. Building another parklet could have cost $2,000 to $3,000, says Carrillo. Instead, he decided to put the money towards constructing a large parklet for Que Rico, his nightclub in downtown Oakland, where he frequently sells quesabirria tacos and hosts DJ events.
Carrillo would still like to bring a parklet back to La Frontera and wants other Fruitvale business owners to be able to participate in Flex Streets, but “there needs to be a way to make them more secure in that area,” he said.
Before more businesses in her district offer outdoor dining, Reid believes the city needs to invest in other programs that will curb speeding along International Avenue corridor. A proposal to install surveillance cameras along business corridors like MacArthur and International will be discussed at a council meeting on March 15. “We don’t feel safe enough to walk outside in some of these corridors,” Reid said, “so that’s one of the issues we’ve been working to counter.”