News

Tents must come down, city says, as restaurants and customers push back

Mountain View residents Nimi, Elena and Dylan Berman dine under an outdoor tent at Los Portales Mexican restaurant. The city is now requiring businesses to take their tents down, citing fire code concerns. Photo courtesy Nimi Berman.

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.

Up until a few weeks ago, Castro Street was filled with temporary tent structures outside of restaurants to shade patrons from the sun. Now, businesses are only allowed to use umbrellas. Photo by Malea Martin.

“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.”

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

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.

That sounds super subjective to me. Who decides what’s the design aesthetic of downtown?

-Ted Kim, Steins Beer Garden owner

“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.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

“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.”

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now
Malea Martin
Malea Martin covers the city hall beat in Mountain View. Before joining the Mountain View Voice in 2022, she covered local politics and education for New Times San Luis Obispo, a weekly newspaper on the Central Coast of California. Read more >>

Follow Mountain View Voice Online on Twitter @mvvoice, Facebook and on Instagram @mvvoice for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Stay informed on important city government news. Sign up for our FREE daily Express newsletter.

Tents must come down, city says, as restaurants and customers push back

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Tue, Aug 23, 2022, 1:34 pm

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.”

Comments

Ellie
Registered user
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2022 at 2:30 pm
Ellie, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 2:30 pm

This is very sad - glad getting press coverage as had no idea - how do we lobby Sacramento to amend Fire code to take into account covid so can have safety from fire as well as outdoor seating so safety from covid which is not going away (umbrellas are not as good coverage in strong sun or hopefully rain we so need). Perhaps there can be council inspectors to make sure all is safe while allowing tents to remain? Where is the petition re this?


A Talking Cat
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Aug 23, 2022 at 2:48 pm
A Talking Cat, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 2:48 pm

I am extremely disappointed by the city's decision here. They haven't enforced the ban in more than 2 years, and there's no really good reason to start now. This is extremely unfriendly to small businesses and their customers.
Who can we hold accountable for this, and how can we push for getting the tents back?
Fire is dangerous, but so is skin cancer!
Plus, as they say, Winter is Coming…


SallyVP
Registered user
Blossom Valley
on Aug 23, 2022 at 3:16 pm
SallyVP, Blossom Valley
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 3:16 pm

This is ridiculous! If it was safe from a fire point of view for 2 years, it's still safe now. This is a really bad idea to make restaurants take down their tents. Lots of people, including myself, prefer to eat outdoors because of Covid. Taking the tents down to put up decorative lights is inane. The tents make the downtown look very inviting. We want people to come downtown and eat in the restaurants, taking the tents down is counter-productive to that goal. I hope the council will change their minds.


Shane
Registered user
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2022 at 3:34 pm
Shane, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 3:34 pm

Open-sided tents are fire-hazards? Give me a break. If this violates the fire code it is pathetic. The City simply should not enforce this ridiculous code. I guarantee you the exposure to strong UV is much more hazardous than the low risk fire hazard. Before making restaurants take down tents they should weigh the benefits vs costs. There are measures that can be taken to reduce the fire risk such as placing fire extinguishers in the tents and fire-proofing the tent fabrics if that is really your concern . Lastly, I think the fabric should be tested for UV protection. The UV index of the tent fabric should be at least 80%. I think it is the same UVI as outdoor clothing and bathing suits.


Johnny Yuma
Registered user
Blossom Valley
on Aug 23, 2022 at 3:56 pm
Johnny Yuma, Blossom Valley
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 3:56 pm

While we’re all for safety, laws were not enforced for 2 years. How is it more dangerous now??? And then getting different messages from different city departments must be infuriating to businesses who have been hammered by the effects that COVID-19 had on their bottom line.


drslb
Registered user
Rengstorff Park
on Aug 23, 2022 at 4:31 pm
drslb, Rengstorff Park
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 4:31 pm

I’m for keeping tents up. I’ve lived in Mountain View for 37 years, home owner. I think requiring tents down a big mistake. I’m in my 70s and do not feel safe eating inside. This is crazy stupid and I hope you get a lot of push back. I will connect with City Council.


A Talking Dog
Registered user
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2022 at 4:50 pm
A Talking Dog, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 4:50 pm

I think this is great! Last time I went to Steins there was a bunch of heaters all over the place under the tarp. You couldn't even get to the exit without going through these heaters.
Also, comparing UV rays versus a fire is silly. If you worried about that wear a long sleeve and a hat.


Ok
Registered user
Sylvan Park
on Aug 23, 2022 at 5:08 pm
Ok, Sylvan Park
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 5:08 pm

I’m pro-tents, but tent covering Steins patio did look ugly.


Mom and pop landlord
Registered user
Waverly Park
on Aug 23, 2022 at 6:26 pm
Mom and pop landlord, Waverly Park
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 6:26 pm

Longtime resident, property owner, and voter here… I’m pro-tent. We won’t eat out inside. No tent fire injuries yet… if it was good enough for two years it’s good for four;)


smorr
Registered user
Monta Loma
on Aug 23, 2022 at 6:52 pm
smorr, Monta Loma
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 6:52 pm

My husband and I are among those who are not ready to eat indoors at restaurants. The tents make it so easy - no having to move umbrellas when the sun shifts, protection from wind and the occasional rain. We need to be able to keep supporting small local businesses. I'm very sad and frustrated that a solution hasn't been found that would allow the tents to stay up. If there's a citizen petition, I want to sign it!


Gracie
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Aug 23, 2022 at 10:11 pm
Gracie, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 23, 2022 at 10:11 pm

I'm still not eating indoors because of Covid. If outdoor dining is less comfortable, I won't be patronizing our local restaurants as much. This is sad all around.


Mtn View Mom
Registered user
Shoreline West
on Aug 24, 2022 at 4:58 am
Mtn View Mom, Shoreline West
Registered user
on Aug 24, 2022 at 4:58 am

Im supportive of the tent ban! Castro Street looks very shabby and haphazzard now. Umbrellas will provide a more unified look for the whole street like in other towns like LA and MV The restaurant businesses should be more willing to adhere to these codes given they are allowed the use our our public street to double their square footage.


J Randall
Registered user
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2022 at 6:36 am
J Randall, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 24, 2022 at 6:36 am

We just moved to Mountain View, and while it is obviously a wonderful place, we find its biggest drawback to be its safety-above-all-else local governance. While the state of CA and Santa Clara County have recently decoupled themselves from the oppressive and small-biz-busting guidance of the soon to be reformed CDC, Mountain View still seems to have an appetite for such Nanny State Authoritarianism. There’s even a certain gravitational pull at street crosswalks here, a whispering in the air, of “Don’t do it” when facing the red hand icon, a needless warning on an empty street not heard by the reasonable and fair minded jay walker of other cities.


MyOpinion
Registered user
Sylvan Park
on Aug 24, 2022 at 7:12 am
MyOpinion, Sylvan Park
Registered user
on Aug 24, 2022 at 7:12 am

If the city is enforcing CA fire code are they inspecting RVs parked on city streets to ensure they have fire extinguishers as required by law?

005 California Vehicle Code Sections 28060 Article 11. Fire Extinguishers
VEHICLE CODE SECTION 28060
28060.
…. The operator of a recreational vehicle, or a vehicle to which a camper is attached, which recreational vehicle or camper is
equipped with a fire extinguisher as required by subdivision (a),
shall carry such fire extinguisher in such recreational vehicle or camper and shall maintain the fire extinguisher in an efficient. operating condition….


MV_Voter
Registered user
Rex Manor
on Aug 24, 2022 at 9:13 am
MV_Voter, Rex Manor
Registered user
on Aug 24, 2022 at 9:13 am

i would hope the city would go to bat for the businesses which are their constituents. like many, i enjoy dining out, but i do not yet feel comfortable eating indoors when doing so. we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and the city seems to have neglected that fact. tents are such a positive way for these businesses to maintain their incoming revenue and stay in the black. the city ought to be more supportive of these restaurants in our community, especially since there seems to be no end to this pandemic,


Greg David
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Aug 24, 2022 at 10:28 am
Greg David, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 24, 2022 at 10:28 am

Maybe the city should start with shutting down illegal food vendors on a Castro. This last Saturday there were FIVE operating on the 200 block, utilizing city provided picnic tables for their patrons. They have propane grills and no sanitary facilities whatsoever. I called MVPD non-emergency dispatch and they said they couldn’t do anything and to call the county health department. I guess the fear of being labeled “racist” is more concerning than public health. Of course I have heard nothing from the county health department. How does a 9-5 civil servant red tab a restaurant that does not exist? They don’t. That’s the job of the POLICE to shut down illegal vendors.

I can’t put my head around it, but for some reason the City of Mountain View simply hates small businesses.


Tal Shaya
Registered user
Rengstorff Park
on Aug 24, 2022 at 3:46 pm
Tal Shaya, Rengstorff Park
Registered user
on Aug 24, 2022 at 3:46 pm

Outdoor dining was a solution to keep businesses open during the pandemic. I'm sorry but that's not a reason anymore to violate the fire code. Safety comes first. But they City should have made this change clear before asking the public's input on blocking traffic. If you want a giant food court then build one. Repurposing Castro Street isn't working very well.


MV Resident
Registered user
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2022 at 10:29 pm
MV Resident, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 24, 2022 at 10:29 pm

Love the closed-down section of Castro Street and hope to see it made permanent. There need to be some coverage structures considered in the long term solution… more than just umbrellas. Agree with others that the white tents are getting a little worn - but upgrade to nice fresh colored fabric canvas should be an option vs just removal.


Sam Connell
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Aug 25, 2022 at 10:55 am
Sam Connell, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2022 at 10:55 am

These sorts of decisions are often driven by a squeaky wheel behind the scenes causing havoc for the city planners and decision makers. I was looking forward to having lunch downtown but not getting skin cancer outside and not getting covid inside. It should still be a health priority to have safe outside seating.


Sam Connell
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Aug 25, 2022 at 11:00 am
Sam Connell, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2022 at 11:00 am

I should add that if the kid with the app wins a seat on the council, I know which way he'd vote.


Bruno
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Aug 25, 2022 at 12:01 pm
Bruno, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2022 at 12:01 pm

I had one of those food vendor hot dogs and it was delicious. It was so good that I didn't call the police.

Agree that the city does not put small businesses first at all. The vacant storefront rate on Castro is an embarrassment, and it's an issue citywide.


JAFO
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Aug 25, 2022 at 10:28 pm
JAFO, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 25, 2022 at 10:28 pm

I understand that perhaps it was overlooked that the California laws dictated that public streets may not have those kinds of structures to be put on the street. This may not be an issue that the City can do anything about.

And remember to operate a business you need a license to operate, which includes a provision stating the business must operate in compliance with all state laws. Thus was simply a terrible oversight, perhaps maybe even a cause of action against the city by the business for facilitating a violation of the state laws.

I know it was to provide some measure of economic activity in the Downtown and a measure to prevent permanent closures of businesses. But sometimes the method used can backfire and be even more damaging. Realize that by doing what these businesses did could result in loss of all revenues due to operating their business in violation of the business license requirements.

The City Attorney should have noticed this problem, I hope that there was some legal measure from the state that provides a defense, if it doesn't the City could be in for a lot of trouble.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.