Up until a few days ago, patrons grabbing a beer or soft pretzel at Steins Beer Garden in Mountain View didn’t need to bring a hat or sunglasses to enjoy the restaurant’s outdoor patio. During the pandemic, Steins owner Ted Kim invested more than $13,000 to have a custom tent built so his customers could stay covered from the elements – whether it be the hot summer sun or a winter drizzle.
But on Aug. 21, Kim reluctantly took his tent down following a months-long back and forth with the city, he said. Castro Street businesses were asked to take their tents down earlier this month, and city staff say that all other businesses with tents will be required to take them down within 30 days – leaving both restaurant owners and customers concerned about the future of outdoor dining in the city.
Businesses on and off Castro Street were first encouraged to stand up tents “at the peak of when local emergency health orders did not allow for any indoor dining,” the city’s Economic Vitality Manager John Lang told the Voice. “The pilot helped support local restaurants during economically challenging times.”
But last month, Lang said, the city began communicating with businesses that tents would no longer be allowed for a few reasons: to comply with the California fire code, to improve the city’s ability to maintain the public space and to allow for the installation of new string lighting on Castro Street. Per California Fire Code Chapter 31, temporary tents cannot be erected for more than 180 days within a 12-month period.
“On August 2, businesses within the 100, 200 and 300 blocks of Castro Street that had outdoor tents were officially notified to remove the tents as they were no longer permitted under the Castro StrEATs pilot program,” Lang said. “Although the tents will no longer be permitted, restaurants will be able to put up umbrellas that can provide shade for patrons.”
According to Steins owner Kim, his tent saga with the city started a few months earlier. Kim said he first received an email from the city in May this year asking that he remove his tent structure by June.
“At the time, I asked if there was any avenue where we could (keep the tent),” Kim said. “I’m happy to go through the city, get a permit, figure it out.”
Kim was put in touch with the city’s planning department. He said that aesthetics, not the fire code, was the reasoning offered to him at the time by city staff.
“They said, ‘We don’t want it to look old and beat up.’ I said, ‘I understand that. What if I just change the tarp every year?’” Kim said. “I tried to propose a lot of different options. At the end of the day, they just pointed to the fact that it just didn’t meet the design aesthetic of downtown. … That sounds super subjective to me. Who decides what’s the design aesthetic of downtown?”
Kim pushed back. He asked the city when the rest of downtown would also be required to take their tents down.
“They came back to me and said, ‘We’re not going to require you to take the tent down by June,’” Kim said. “They told me they would let me know when the rest of downtown was also going to (be required to take their tents down).”
On Aug. 2, Lang said, the city notified Castro Street businesses that they needed to remove their tents by Aug. 15. Kim said he wasn’t made aware of the order until Aug. 9 when he got an email from the fire marshall.
“He referenced the flyer that had gone out on Aug. 2. I don’t know who it went out to, I didn’t get that flyer,” Kim said. “(Aug. 9) was the first time I’d seen it. I wrote back saying, there’s no way I can get this down in five days.”
The tent at Steins required a professional to be taken down, so Kim called his tent guy and got him in as soon as he could. The tent came down on Sunday.
Lang said, in addition to the 180-day maximum requirement in the California fire code, there are other code-related issues that the city dealt with during the Castro StrEATs pilot program, such as lighting and electrifying the tents using extension cords, the use of city outlets, ensuring the tents are secure, propane heaters being positioned near tents and cooking apparatus placed underneath tents.
Kim said he only heard about the propane issue when he first had his tent installed. He made sure to never have any propane heaters under or near his tent.
“If they had told me it was a fire code thing, I don’t think I would have pushed back as hard,” Kim said. “They just said it doesn’t fit the design aesthetic. I think that’s why I was miffed about it.”
Other restaurants outside of Castro Street are also frustrated by the sudden change. Los Portales, a beloved Mexican restaurant on Moffett Boulevard, was asked to remove its tent earlier this month. Owner Salvador Puga expects his business to take a hit as a result.
“It’s definitely a part of the business that’s become popular with most people,” Puga said. “It’s only going to affect it in the negative, that’s for sure.”
Longtime Los Portales customers are coming to bat for the restaurant. Mountain View residents Nimi and Elena Berman have frequented Los Portales for more than 20 years, and especially appreciated the option to sit comfortably outdoors during the pandemic.
“They have this great tent outside, just behind the building there,” Nimi said. “We still don’t feel comfortable eating indoors, so we love that outdoor seating area. … So my concern here comes from a personal place, but there’s definitely a financial impact for small, family-owned, already struggling businesses.”
Nimi and Elena are worried that if the tent comes down, some of Los Portales’ customers might be driven away by not being able to sit as comfortably outdoors.
“They (the city) have been not enforcing the ban against the tents for like two and a half years,” Elena said. “There’s a lot of people who still have reasons to be really careful about COVID, and eating outdoors while there are tents and ways to do that comfortably is an easy way to support the local economy and community while still being really safe about COVID.”
Lang said in addition to the umbrella option, “permanent structures may be accommodated through planning permit processes depending on the availability of private property,” though for businesses that are utilizing public space like Castro Street or the sidewalk, permanent structures are not allowed.
For enforcement, the city plans to issue notices for the tents to be removed.
“If the tents are not removed according to notice, fines can be issued,” Lang said.
Steins owner Kim agreed to take his tent down, but he’s not happy about it–and neither are his customers, he said.
“People don’t like it. I can already tell,” Kim said. “We have a lot of events lined up, and I think these people are expecting this tent to be here. The weather’s been hot. I’m not sure what the response is going to be.”