Despite community concerns for public safety during the pandemic, the San Carlos Street Closure Program will continue into the fall with councilmembers calling on each other to reimagine the future of downtown.

“Let’s not revert back to the old normal. Let’s build on this and think about Laurel Street 3.0,” Vice Mayor Sara McDowell said during Monday’s meeting. “This summer people are going to gather no matter what. Let’s prepare for that.”

Presented with the opportunity to end its street closure program along parts of Laurel Street, San Carlos Avenue and Arroyo Street by June 15, the council opted to maintain the program’s current end date of Sept. 1.

The Downtown Subcommittee, chaired by councilmembers Ron Collins and Adam Rak, put the item on the city agenda following community complaints about crowding in the area and drunken disruptions.

Police Chief Kristina Bell said the bureau has had to respond to an average of three to four calls a week in the area sometimes due to increased alcohol consumption and physical altercations. Since Valentine’s Day, when the city had an increase of restaurants breaking health guidelines to allow indoor dining, the agency has had officers patrol the area every Friday through Sunday.

“As we all know when we increase with alcohol sometimes bad things happen,” Bell said. “For us we just want to make sure that everyone is safe and feels safe downtown during this process.”

During a COVID-19 update, City Attorney Greg Rubens said seven restaurants received warnings from his office for being out of compliance with health codes on Feb. 14. Rubens estimated that more than 100 businesses were issued warnings by the county’s Compliance Task Force.

Collins also said the end of the state’s color-coded reopening system was a reason to reconsider the program. Once restaurants are permitted to have full capacity they would have even more seats than before the pandemic with the potential to draw larger crowds, he said.

“It shows that there is a great deal of love and interest in our downtown,” Collins said. “[We brought the matter forward] to put everyone on notice that we need to continue to be vigilant and to take care of our downtown. Everyone is responsible.”

The city also lost 150 parking stalls to accommodate the program which could result in traffic congestion in the area. Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan highlighted the hardships faced by some nonrestaurant merchants after losing the parking, noting one merchant told her she was close to losing her business.

Some community events would need to be relocated as the program continues due to the lack of space for emergency vehicles.

“I want to see some real action to make sure it works holistically for the rest of the community because it works great for the restaurants but there are definitely some merchants and retailers that are suffering,” Parmer-Lohan said.

Echoing the sentiments of nearly a dozen public speakers, Steve Salazar, the owner of Sneakers American Grill, encouraged the council to continue the program. The restaurant on the 600 block of Laurel Street, is located in the area residents have expressed most concerns about.

But Salazar questioned if the complaints outweigh the positive responses from happy customers. Councilmembers also noted they’d each received more than 170 emails over the weekend and McDowell said only five were negative.

“The outdoor dining program has been a huge success for every restaurant in the city. We would be gone if it didn’t exist,” Salazar said. “To change it midstream is really kind of unfair and kind of a stab in the back to the restaurants downtown.”

Councilmembers largely agreed with public comments to maintain the program as is, citing an interest in continuing support of restaurants after the long year of losses. McDowell also noted families with unvaccinated children will need outdoor dining as an option well into the fall.

Rather than end the program earlier than initially approved, the council agreed to revisit the conversation with visions for creating a more permanent rendition of the program. Rak suggested the city could extend the program further into the year and Collins said he’d “entertain the idea” of permitting additional permanent parklets in the city.

Echoing Rak, Councilmember John Dugan shared interest in seeing the program expanded into the year and suggested the city consider a more permanent closure program of a portion of Laurel Street.

“I think we need to start thinking bigger on this,” Dugan said. “There might be some enforcement and other adjustments that have to be made when we do something important like that but I think we’re up for the challenge.”

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