The areas set up by local restaurants in street-side parking spaces around Sonoma Plaza have dramatically changed the appearance of the historic city center.
A response to the pandemic, which closed indoor dining, these outdoor sitting and dining areas, called “Parklets,” have provided a safe space and undoubtedly saved many restaurants from economic failure.
When the pace of tourism slowed dramatically, so did the auto traffic associated with it. For many months, the Plaza was nearly empty of parked cars, and the use of parking spaces for parklets worked just fine. Temporary bollards and coverings fit the bill; none of them were very attractive, but were workable. Getting permission to create a parklet simply required an over-the-counter permit issued by city staff.
Over time, the parklets became more substantial. Bollards were replaced by raised wooden platforms, some with roofs and downspouts. What looked like temporary outdoor dining areas began to look semi-permanent as businesses invested in safe, attractive exterior dining spaces.
Today there are a variety of such spaces, each sporting its own style, from simple to elaborate. All are currently permitted until November of this year, and the City Council is considering extending that permission into next year.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has slowed, vaccinations are up, and businesses are now allowing limited indoor dining again. Spending any time on the Plaza during the weekend reveals tourism is increasing and with it come more cars. Sooner than later, tourism traffic will approach its normal level, but the parklets mean there are 25 percent fewer parking spaces on the Square.
This prompts discussion of the old and perhaps intractable need to develop Plaza parking solutions, and perhaps the opportunity for the city to commit to a long-range traffic and parking plan. All past studies of Plaza Parking reveal that 50 percent of the cars parked on the Plaza belong to Plaza business employees, despite the availability of the free, all-day Casa Grande parking lot.
Discussions about charging for parking on the Plaza have always run into vehement objections from Plaza businesses. Those old concerns – making sure there’s plenty of close, free parking for potential customers – have been muted by the more pressing need for butts in seats, not in parked cars.
Time and technology have advanced, and innovative parking solutions exist today that have made parking meters obsolete. Numbered spaces, pay stations, smart phones, internet apps, and parking validation are available and convenient, but even these solutions do not resolve the absence of sufficient parking near the Plaza.
What’s needed is a comprehensive parking plan, and the revenue to support it. The city must finalize its agreement with State Parks for the lease of the Casa Grande parking lot, which has been stuck in limbo for too many years. What’s the hold up?
A downtown parking district, financed by fees from Plaza businesses combined with parking revenues, must be established, to acquire land and develop off-Plaza parking – even the construction of a below and above ground parking structure. It’s time for Sonoma’s Plaza traffic and parking management to move into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the Plaza is a registered historic landmark, and if parklets are to be part of its future, they need to enhance its appearance instead of the hodge-podge solutions they are today. Who knows, perhaps with a real plan, over time the sidewalks can be expanded and outdoor seating placed on them as it is in European cities, while cars park in an underground facility nearby. Just sayin’.