Sonoma’s Plaza is a treasure, a nationally recognized historical landmark. It’s not just the tree-studded, eight acres of green that’s historic, but the entirety of streets and buildings that surround it. The Plaza remains the heart and soul of the community, a magnet to visitors and residents alike. Sitting astride busy Highway 12, its popularity is both a blessing and a curse.
Protecting the Plaza has been a multigenerational effort. From its utilitarian beginnings as a corral the Plaza has literally played a central role in Sonoma. It was not always a place of leisure and celebration, but also one of commerce, and its protection has included social, physical, and commercial aspects. The Covid-19 pandemic is the latest example.
With restrictions placed on gathering indoors, the economic stress on restaurants and tasting rooms has been extreme. In the beginning, many resorted to curb-side take-out service only, but as the pandemic wore on, city government agreed to allow the creation of dining “parklets,” covered spaces occupying the street where parking had previously been located. In an extreme example, First Street East at Napa Street was blocked off entirely to accommodate outdoor seating.
In years past, sidewalk seating was not allowed by the city; pedestrian obstruction and safety were trotted out as the reasons. Similarly, any suggestion that parking be reduced always met with vigorous objections. Restaurant seating permits, it was pointed out, are tied to parking space allocations; at least, they used to be. The great irony of pandemic Plaza parklets is that all the rules and assumptions about use of the Plaza, its parking spaces, and sidewalks, have been turned upside down, raising the question as to whether or not such rules were really appropriate in the first place.
The creation of parklets around the Plaza appears to be popular; this is not surprising. Many cities in Europe encourage sidewalk dining and such accommodations add a lively social quality to streets. The parklets in Sonoma, however, are a hodge-podge of styles, including off-the-shelf plastic tents, wooden structures, water-filled orange bollards, and simple tables with umbrellas. Overall, we’d describe them as generally unattractive. The parklets were never anticipated or part of a plan; they just happened out of necessity.
Now that the pandemic is waning, justification for parklets based on limitations about gathering inside to eat are no longer relevant. At the same time, parklets have demonstrated their popularity, and there’s good reasons to consider ways to accommodate sidewalk dining. One suggestion is to create a temporary wooden sidewalk extension of three feet all around the Plaza, and allow dining tables, chairs and umbrellas on the paved portion of the sidewalks. Re- striped, most streets surrounding the Plaza are wide enough to accommodate such an extension.
The benefit of this idea is that parking around the Plaza would be fully restored and the unattractive hodge-podge of existing parklet structures would be removed.
We believe the Plaza would greatly benefit from the creation of a Plaza Parking District plan incorporating the creation of revenue sources, parking facility development, physical improvements, and greater pedestrian safety. Attention to the creative use of the Plaza while preserving its historic qualities would add flexibility, and the review of outdated parking and use regulations could improve business conditions.
The parklet program expires in October. The time to add your voice is now.