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Dining Decks Around the Desert: Some remain better than others when it comes to safety

Some dining decks around the Coachella Valley remain safer than others nearly three months after our first I-Team report on curbside dining options.

A lot of people will be heading out for a nice meal this Valentine's day. But a continuing I-Team investigation reveals dining decks being used, even fully approved by local cities, that don’t appear to be up to code. 

A curbside dining deck in Palm Springs, on Palm Canyon drive, used to have a concrete barrier protecting it from oncoming traffic. Now, the barrier is gone. But diners are still sitting in it right next to moving traffic. They have little to no protection should a driver go off the road.

“I hope that they keep these for the restaurants,” said Teresa Aljayyousi of Indio adding, “I really do.”

“The city took them out,” said Gina Gonzales of El Patrón. “Yes, and those are heavy” Gonzales added regarding the barricades.

I asked the city for a response. Palm Springs Planning Director, Flinn Fagg, said the parklet in question will soon go. He said it’s a leftover from a previous permit and will have 30 days to be removed. The restaurant’s other parklet is all that’s allowed, a policy that impacts any corner business with two street fronts.

“I think they’re wonderful,” said Cyndi Bagus of Chicago.  

"It's a big difference in having it. We don't want to give it up until they tell us to, but it's a big difference."

Belinda Rangel, Gastro Grind Burgers

Curbside dining decks have become quite popular during the pandemic. And most we found appear to have made required safety improvements. “It’s a big difference in having it,” said Belinda Rangel, Owner of Gastro Grind Burgers in Palm Desert. “We don’t want to give it up until they tell us to, but it’s a big difference,” Rangel added.

In Palm Desert, The Daily Grill’s safety changes to its over-the-curb dining deck are subtle but effective. Solid concrete fills planters line its street deck providing an effective traffic barrier for diners. 

I walked up and down El Paseo and Highway 111 testing the barriers. Some wouldn’t budge. Others did. Some business owners told me the city said they had to make sure their barriers weighed 250 pounds or more. 

“They told me 250 pounds,” said Sally Hill of Sweet Basil California Eatery. “I have over 350 pounds of weight. I was very cautious about that,” Hill added.

Nothing in the written guidelines defines a simple weight requirement. The city’s requirement is withstanding “250 pounds of force.”  

We asked about the requirement. City engineers confirmed to us, the 250-pound weight requirement merchants mentioned for the barricade and withstanding 250 pounds of force are one and the same.

We showed a video to the Palm Desert’s Deputy Director of Development Services and Economic Development. It shows how easily I rocked a planter located on an already approved and permitted streetside dining deck. I asked Eric Ceja if the planter could protect people from a car.

Ceja replied, “We do inspections for each one of these dining decks to ensure compliance with those safety guidelines. We’ll have to go back and inspect it to make sure it meets those requirements.”

Traffic accidents can and do happen. Seven people were hurt in a New York City crash last March where video showed debris flying across the roadway.

Another crash in Los Angeles in January saw a car cross a curbside patio and into a building where it hit two diners who had to be hospitalized in serious condition.

“Yes I do feel safe, but maybe I shouldn't,” said Bagus who enjoys eating out in the fresh air and sunshine.

Ceja says a dining deck team of Palm Desert city staff meets with restaurant operators and explains safety and design guidelines. In Palm Springs, the vast majority of the city’s remaining dining decks remain safely secured behind construction-grade concrete barriers.

The stakes are high. More than 3,000 people were killed by distracted drivers in 2019 alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“It’s an alarming number and it’s been getting bigger and bigger,” said David Reich of the National Road Safety Foundation. 

Candace Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Lightner said, “You can’t keep everyone from making reckless dangerous driving choices, unfortunately. But we can do a lot more than we do.”

In Palm Springs, scuffs on a concrete barricade in front of TRIO show it’s been hit at least once but, like others, it’s doing its job in protecting the diners behind it. The city reports at least two DUI collisions near parklets. A car crashed into a concrete barrier next to Hunter’s in November, and a wrong-way driver crashed into the concrete-protected parklet at Las Casuelas Terraza last February. Nobody was hurt in either incident.

"And I think when they go away, people will be amazed in the future like, 'Really? That was out there?' And 'that was so dangerous to be there."

Larae Henderson, Palm Desert

“And I think when they go away. People will be amazed in the future like ‘Really? That was out there?’ And ‘that was so dangerous to be there,’” said Larea Henderson of Palm Desert. He shies away from sitting in outdoor dining decks.

In Palm Springs, city workers removed a number of barriers last month and re-striped Palm Canyon through downtown. 

Both Palm Springs and Palm Desert have been working to address any safety concerns, but are walking a fine line. Restaurants are already financially-stressed, due to pandemic shutdown orders. Restaurants that have yet to make their required improvements, like everyone else, are dealing with labor and materials supply issues.

In Palm Desert, I contacted the Fix's owner James Gonzalez who declined an on-camera interview. But he did tell me he is aware of the city requirements, and he is in the process of upgrading his barricades. But he’s also had a contractor he hired to do the work, skip out on the job. He says he’s spent $3,000 so far. He expects to have his deck’s upgrades complete in the coming weeks.”

“The city did provide up to a $5,000 dollar grant for each one of these dining decks as a means of supporting it,” Ceja added. The City of Palm Desert expects the improvements to be completed by April. 

In Palm Springs, there are 9 dining decks total. Five of those are still working through the permitting process, while 4 are fully approved for safety, design, accessibility, and esthetic concerns.  

In Palm Desert, there are 16 decks total, with 8 still undergoing the permitting process. 14-restaurants have removed their dining decks.

Interactive: Elements of a safer dining deck

Source: National Association of City Transportation Officials

Tac/Quila at 415 N. Palm Canyon 
El Patron at 101 S. Palm Canyon 
Las Casuelas Terraza at 222 S Palm Canyon Dr
Las Casuelas Viejas at  368 N Palm Canyon Dr

Trio Restaurant, 707 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262
Fuzion Five, 285 S Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262
Revel Public House, 140 S Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262
Workshop Kitchen & Bar, 800 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262
Fame Cigars and Wine, 155 S Palm Canyon Dr, STE A3, Palm Springs, CA 92262

Pizza Vino, 73722 El Paseo #1, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Ristorante Mamma Gina, 73705 El Paseo, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Armando's Dakota Bar & Grill, 73260 El Paseo, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Sweet Basil California Eatery, 73655 El Paseo, Palm Desert, CA 92260
French Rotisserie Café, 44489 Town Center Way STE G, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Desert Wine Shop, 73360 CA-111 #1, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Mimmo’s, 73540 CA-111 #4, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Wildest Greens, 72990 El Paseo #3, Palm Desert, CA 92260

IL Corso , 73520 El Paseo, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Little Bar, 73560 Palm Desert Dr N #B, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Castelli’s, 73098 CA-111, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Kitchen 86 + Bar, 73-130 El Paseo, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Gastro Grind Burgers, 73850 CA-111 #B, Palm Desert, CA 92260
The Fix on El Paseo, 73580 El Paseo, Palm Desert, CA 92260
Fresh Agave,  73325 CA-111, Palm Desert, CA 92260

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