Oakland City Council on Tuesday voted in favor of an ordinance extending the city’s Flex Streets initiative until March 31, 2022. The program, which was set up by emergency ordinance in May 2020, should help local businesses stay afloat during the pandemic, streamlining the permitting process for activities such as alfresco dining and retail, mobile grocery sales, and road closures. Flex Streets does not incur any permit fees and business owners who apply for these permits will receive automatic approval.
The initiative is currently slated to expire a month after the local Emergency Ordinance was repealed, a date that has not yet been set. Council members will cast their final votes on the extension on June 15th.
District 1 Councilor Dan Kalb and District 6 Councilor Loren Taylor both emphasized their support for an expansion of Flex Streets now, but not necessarily in the long term. “I support the Flex Streets program,” said Kalb, “but I don’t think it should be permanent.”
At the request of City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, the council agreed to include an amendment to the Flex Streets initiative, should it be extended, to help create more outdoor community markets similar to the Akoma Market that emerged in East Oakland during the time the pandemic.
City officials from various departments who helped design the Flex Streets initiative last year presented an overview of the program and its implications during Tuesday’s meeting.
According to the staff, Flex Streets resulted in the construction of over 100 parklets, more than 40 street vendor permits and 13 road closures for outdoor business activities. The program has been used by restaurants as well as organizations such as the Black Cultural Zone and the Telegraph-Temescal Business Improvement District to host outdoor events. Flex Streets permits have also helped vendors set up stores along Lakeshore Avenue and Grand Avenue during the pandemic.
City officials conducted a survey of local businesses applying for a Flex Street permit, which was distributed digitally and in multiple languages. Most of the business owners surveyed said they found the application process easy and that the program increased their income. The majority of respondents were male, white, and Asian Pacific islanders.
The city’s report did not include a breakdown of where in the city there have been outdoor dining, parklets, and road closures due to Flex Streets. But Warren Logan, a political director in the mayor’s office who has been involved with the initiative since its inception, provided The Oaklandside with information in February showing that parklets – areas of sidewalks or parking strips that have been repurposed for outdoor seating – Oakland was particularly popular in North. Complete road closures for large multi-company events are popular in the city center and Jack London Square. Mobile grocery retailing, also supported by the Flex Streets Initiative, has become more popular in East Oakland neighborhoods like Eastlake and Fruitvale.
District 7 Councilor Treva Reid cited public safety as an obstacle preventing companies in East Oakland from using Flex Streets permits to build parklets or set up dining tables on sidewalks and streets.
Mayra Chavez of Huarache Azteca, a Mexican restaurant on International Boulevard in Fruitvale, told The Oaklandside that eating on the sidewalk is risky because “International is a street where people ride bikes on the sidewalk on weekends.”
Some small business advocates called to express their support for the renewal. “After COVID, we need to get people out on the streets and walk downtown and shop,” said Gregory McConnell, president of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, during the meeting’s public comment. “I think the Flex Streets program has helped and will continue to help.”
Other advocates, such as Shifra de Benedictis-Kessner, executive director of the Temescal-Telegraph business improvement district, called for their support to be expressed but noted that adjustments are needed.
“I think it’s definitely promising,” she said, “but we need some improvement.”