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Sonoma mulling street, Plaza dining until October 2021

What began as a test run to give Sonoma Plaza-area restaurants a boost during the tightest days of the business lockdown this summer — allowing eateries to serve customers on the sidewalk in front of their establishments or in designated areas of Plaza — may be extended through the rest of the year.

And the outside dining might continue until October 2021, or longer.

That was the takeaway from a City Council presentation last week from Mark Bodenhamer, director of the Chamber of Commerce, Tim Zahner, of Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, and Public Works director Colleen Ferguson, whose department has been overseeing the transformation of the downtown Sonoma business district.

The council in May had approved limited expansion of business operating space using sidewalks, the Plaza, Grinstead Amphitheater and the public right of ways nearby. That was followed in August by a partial street closure of First Street East between Patten Street and East Napa to allow Pangloss Cellars and Maya restaurant to serve customers in the evenings, between Thursday and Saturday.

The city then allowed the formation of the “Sonoma Promenade,” extending north on the same street to roughly 450 First St. East, past the gateway to the Mercado shopping alley. The promenade opened on Aug. 21, and has continued Friday and Saturday, from 5 to 10 p.m.

Meanwhile, city officials also approved a larger effort to maximize outdoor business opportunities, dubbed the “Sonoma Al Fresco” program.

“This program has allowed businesses to remain open and patrons to enjoy Sonoma’s Al Fresco experiences while maintaining safe areas for pedestrians,” Ferguson said.

Sonoma Al Fresco has allowed expansion of outside dining on sidewalks or even on public on-street parking places in front of businesses, including so-called “parklets” with barriers, canopies and tents sheltering tables and chairs from street traffic and weather.

Nearby cities Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Windsor have done something similar to help local restaurants and brewpubs offset the inability to serve consumers inside.

Unfortunately, smoke from recent wildfires has hindered open-air dining on days when the air quality is unhealthy. And as the weather gets cooler in the fall, restaurateurs likely will draw fewer customers willing to eat outdoors.

“We’re really running out of time, and businesses are running out of money,” Bodenhamer told the City Council on Wednesday.

Sonoma city staff is attempting to give assurances to the business community and residents that progressive steps are being taken to support local restaurants.

***For example, the weekend closing of First Street East between Napa and Patten streets has been approved through Oct. 13, 2021. Sidewalk or outside dining is likely to continue, too. The city has received 21 temporary use permits for business expansion in the Plaza area, possibly to include erecting canopies over outside seating areas on public sidewalks and city streets through next spring.

These opportunities may expand. Some businesses on the other side of the Plaza, on First Street West, have requested similar street closures.

Ferguson and others think the parklets are the most promising way to keep business viable in a cooler climate, keep the dining space close to restaurant kitchens and maintain some aesthetic consistency with Sonoma’s heritage.

Still, every parking place taken to provide dining space means visitors need to be able to find a nearby parking space. Ferguson said parklets could remove about 20% of Plaza-area parking.

“We are looking at other creative strategies to address parking needs,” Ferguson said.

Pedestrians present another challenge. Some ideas include devoting the full sidewalk to the restaurant, and diverting pedestrians to the parking spaces — protected by barriers. Café La Haye in particular has expressed interest in this idea.

“Such a sidewalk solution could be in place until October 2021 and possibly into 2022,” Ferguson, “depending on the needs of the pandemic.”

Whatever the future holds, Sonoma officials are looking closely at options.

“The economy operates like an ecosystem, so when one of our primary industries struggles, it has a substantive impact on the others,” Bodenhamer said. “We are working hard to assist all businesses so that the overall health of our local economy is sustainable.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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