When it was first discussed back in the spring, it sounded like a winning proposition. With local businesses shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, why not take advantage of South Pasadena’s estimable midtown charm and lure customers to shop and eat outdoors?
Ambitiously tabbed as the Al Fresco Dining and Retail Program, the city invested $50,000 in Proposition C funds to rent concrete K-rail traffic barriers to cordon off street parking in select areas, allowing local merchants to use the space for outdoor dining and shopping. Two weeks after installation of the barriers, the reception has been varied.
“The restaurants are using them,” said Laurie Wheeler, president of the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, which championed the idea from its inception. “We are making some adjustments. The more people start using them, the more they are going to feel it is a good idea.”
The project initially experienced its share of bad timing. When the K-rails were installed on Thursday, Sept. 17, the region was in the throes of a heat wave. Unhealthful air-quality conditions caused by forest fires in the area immediately followed. Several merchants were taken by surprise when the large concrete barriers materialized in the streets surrounding their shops, further compromising on-street parking.
“I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Wheeler. “We had just been through three weeks of really bad sales and were figuring out how to survive.”
Wheeler said accommodations were made, when possible, to remove the K-rails.
“Let’s face it, we have free parking and when you lose a space in front of your store, it’s tough.”
Alice McIntosh readily agrees with that statement. For the last 46 years, McIntosh has owned the Red Shoes, a boutique specializing in dancewear and accessories, located in the 1000 block of Mission Street. With COVID and Amazon nipping at the heels of her market share, the K-rails posed another obstacle — literally.
“I come to work one morning and the streets are all blocked off,” said McIntosh. “There were K-rails everywhere. Cars park there all day. They are there when I come to work and they are there when I leave.”
McIntosh said the new arrangement caused by the K-rails has reduced the inventory of parking spaces around her business from 16 to six.
Her situation has been further impacted by the resumption of filming, with workers from two recent productions picking away at the already scarce parking spots.
“My business has totally suffered,” McIntosh said. “The city gets a grant and it makes my business worse.”
She also stated that the barriers “take away the quaint look of the street.”
Wheeler explained that the K-rail rental contract is expected to extend for 12-18 months after installation and includes removal costs. The barriers will remain in place until 90 days after the City Council declares an end to the proclamation of local emergency it approved due to the pandemic. In the meantime, how the K-rails are arranged and any related parking or business issues remain the responsibility of the city.
Jones Coffee, at the corner of Mission Street and Meridian Avenue, has experimented with a vinyl wrapping that can be incorporated to spruce up the appearance of the barriers. The South Pasadena Arts Council, which in the past has decorated utility boxes, has been considered as a possible resource.
In the meantime, the chamber has been working with the city to waive permits allowing sidewalk sales and special parking for pickups and drop-offs.
Despite the uncertain times, Wheeler remains optimistic.
“I think it is going to work,” she said. “People want to support local businesses and I am hoping that can be our main focus. The merchants are going to get creative with the space and we are looking forward to the holidays. I think they will appreciate the extra space.”