When COVID-19 hit and the city of San Diego scrambled to facilitate outdoor dining, Little Italy tried to get ahead of the game.
Not only would the neighborhood jump at the chance to fill India Street’s parking with tables and chairs, it would do so in style. At the beginning of the pandemic, Little Italy restaurants blocked off new outdoor eating spaces with long metal railings. Stroll down that street now and you’re met with towering covered wooden patios with hanging plants and stylish lighting.
“People put a lot of money into these structures,” said Marco Li Mandri, chief executive administrator of the Little Italy Association. “We’d like to keep them forever.”
The association is a nonprofit group representing the interests of property owners, residents and businesses in Little Italy. As restaurants and businesses faced mandatory indoor closures, it decided to pool some of the cash the association collects from member fees and hire an architect to design an outdoor dining structure plan. The design plans, stamped by a licensed civil engineer, would be cost-effective and available to anyone who wanted to replicate them, Li Andri said.
“It feels like Europe, like the real Italy,” said Carlos Anaya, general manager of Davanti Enoteca, speaking from within an ornate, candy apple red outdoor dining structure, replete with lamp-like heating, and stretching 16 feet into the street. “From Day One it’s been really confusing because everything was changing. But to hear that this (outdoor patio) might end, it doesn’t make sense.”
Li Mandri was under the impression that the dining structures businesses erected complied with all state building and fire codes.
“(The city) points to Little Italy as an example of the way it should be done. We did this in full cooperation with them,” Li Mandri said.
That’s not the whole story. And the confusion and blame-passing highlights the long road ahead in making the structures legal and permanent.
Fire Chief Doug Perry said he received plans from Little Italy’s hired architect and the city granted a special event permit for a temporary structure, the kind Comic-Con uses to put up tents for instance, which ran out long ago.
“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that every structure out there doesn’t meet electrical code,” Perry said. “It was very clear that it was temporary use only.”
Then why didn’t the city tell Little Italy to take the structures down?
The city tacitly allowed them to continue, said Elyse Lowe, director of development services for the city. That’s where the gray area grew grayer.
“Little Italy was actively trying to pursue alternatives, and we were actively trying to allow the creative alternative,” Lowe said. “It’s gone on longer than expected.”
It appears nobody has been told to take them down. Many restauranteurs in Little Italy said the fire department has been kind and inspectors visit every few days, asking them to make changes like adding a fire extinguisher or checking that stormwater drains aren’t blocked. But many Little Italy restauranters also expect to keep their structures for at least a few years. Mayor Todd Gloria said he would bring forward a one-year extension on the temporary permits that expire in July.
The question remains: If something were to happen, a fire or a car crashing into a structure, or even an earthquake, who would be liable for the aftermath?
“It’s that design professional who takes on all the liability if they stamp plans as fulfilling all the codes,” Perry said.
Little Italy hired architectural design firm PQ Design Studio Inc. to draw up the plans for the large wooden platform with railings and decorative beams that has been replicated throughout the neighborhood.
“We were basically hired to give them a pretty structure that the fire department was OK with,” said Philip Quatrino of PQ Design Studio Inc. “Beyond that, we never got involved with the longevity of these structures.”
Retired civil engineer Joseph Castaneda, who reviewed and stamped the Little Italy structure design with his license, said it’s not entirely true that full liability falls on designers.
“(The stamp) it means … in my opinion, the plans meet state building codes,” he said. “Now that doesn’t make it right. It has to be submitted to the city and the city’s supposed to make a decision.”
Lowe said the city did not verify or inspect the design, in other words, the city’s engineers didn’t sign off on them.
The pandemic-born need for temporary permits to allow outdoor dining structures in public parking spaces is a new thing for the city.
“We didn’t have a program like this, so we accepted that licensed drawing in this instance on behalf of the fire department,” Lowe said.
Ultimately, Castaneda said, “whatever the fire department says, that’s the law.”
The fire department, though, is not OK with the status quo.
So not only are many of these temporary structures sitting on public parking spaces by virtue of permits that have an impending demise, their design doesn’t appear to be approved by the city in a legally enforceable way.
“If somebody takes us to court and wants to go after us on a code complaint on a structure, we don’t have a leg to stand on,” Perry said.
All eyes are on the city’s planning department, which is slated to reveal some path to permanence for outdoor dining structures in the fall.
“The city proposes on May 18 to council an extension of the (temporary outdoor structures) for one year. During this time, new regulations to allow permanent outdoor use of (public right of way) will be developed/adopted/implemented,” Lowe tweeted Tuesday.
It’s clear the Little Italy Association is interested in keeping the structures around. Most businesses don’t have private parking lots into which they can expand outdoor dining, like other areas of town. And Li Mandri said Little Italy’s sidewalks were not designed to accommodate outdoor dining anyway.
“The more we do in the street … as far as we’re concerned, the better,” Li Mandri said.