Oakland City Council Votes to Extend Flex Street Initiative
By Rebecca Smith
June 20, 2021
The Oakland City Council voted to extend the Flex Streets initiative, permitting businesses to continue operating with current outdoor dining on sidewalks and parking lots.
The motion was moved June 1 by Councilor Loren Taylor and seconded by Councilor Nikki Fortunato Bas. It passed 7:0 with one councilor excused.
The Flex Streets initiative aims to provide permits that allow for additional space for Oakland businesses to operate. This initiative granted restaurants, retail, cafes and mobile food vendors access to private spaces and public right-of-ways for business operation.
This initiative was set to expire one month after the expiration of the Local Emergency — June 30, 2021 — but now it will remain in place until March 31, 2022.
Permits for use of these spaces existed before Flex Streets, but the process included fees and timelines that would not have been compatible with the large demand of businesses who needed the outdoor space to distance customers during the pandemic.
“We want to encourage healthy outdoor use and enjoyment of businesses,” said Councilor Taylor.
Flex Streets has enabled businesses to retain employees, generate tax revenue, and revitalize city streets during this trying economic period.
The meeting provided a detailed analysis of the City’s findings. It found that there has been a surge of parklets, sidewalk cafes and street closures. This has transformed the use of the public right-of-way from a space exclusively for transportation to one that accommodates both people and cars.
A survey conducted in November 2020 indicated that businesses found the Flex Streets application process easy, and that the program helped sustain their business, increased sales, and allowed them to keep staff members.
“I still had to reduce my staff, but I was able to reopen a lot sooner than I had anticipated because I could utilize the outdoor space,” said local restaurant owner Gordon Hull, “If we can, I’d like to keep this outdoor space as long as possible. I can accommodate more customers, and it makes people feel safer.”
Constituents did voice their concerns at the meeting. This program gives private businesses control over public spaces, provides no fees to cover staff costs and can result in excessive noise. For these reasons, many constituents advocated against the permanency of this initiative.
“The streets are crowded and littered with trash from the outdoor diners,” said Oakland resident Mary Cooper, “We already deal with tons of noise from construction, but this has just added another level.”
Councilors noted that moving forward there will be a number of factors taken into consideration when deciding whether to further extend the program beyond March 2022.
The fiscal impact of this program is one of these factors. Flex Streets is a free permitting program, so Oakland does not receive any fee revenue to cover the cost of staff administering, monitoring, or enforcing the program. Also, by allowing parking spaces to be used as outdoor dining, the City has lost parking lot revenue. While these factors have resulted in a financial loss for the City, the business and sales tax revenues have increased.
The Oakland City Council justified their approval of the extension claiming that this will provide businesses with the opportunity to recover. It will also allow the City time to analyze what aspects of this initiative Oakland should adopt after the pandemic.