Risa Teitelbaum was walking by Ritual Coffee one morning and saw a notice in the window. Ritual was applying to install a parklet like the one in front of the Revolution Cafe, which meant that the two parking spots in front of the store would be replaced with bike racks and a sitting area.
“When I first saw the notice in the window, it kind of took me by surprise,” said Teitelbaum. “I felt like people were not really getting the full picture of what could happen.”
Teitelbaum went home and immediately sent a note to her Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association e-mail group. It’s not that it wouldn’t be nice to have more parks, she said, “but really this is an extension of a coffee shop.”
“I certainly don’t want to be the one who’s always against things,” said Teitelbaum. But, she added, it is important to evaluate such plans for their overall impact on the neighborhood, even at the risk of being called a NIMBY. “I am a member of the community, and I feel that everybody should voice their opinions.”
Among other things, Teitelbaum cited concerns about noise, increased sidewalk crowding and the loss of two parking spaces. Soon the e-mail chain was buzzing with vigorous debate on the merits of the proposal.
“This is a bad idea from many standpoints: noise, trash, congestion, loss of parking, interference with the bike lanes,” wrote one member. “Really is disappointing that the City does such a poor job of coordinating with neighborhoods,” said another.
Not everyone on the list agreed with Teitelbaum. “The problem is NOT that Ritual is making a parklet, the problem…has more to do with the narrowness of the sidewalks on Valencia,” one poster wrote. “I’d like to ask all of you to please consider calling and writing DPW in SUPPORT of this parklet application. I certainly will be doing so and will be asking all my friends to.”
By noon that day — the last chance to register opposition to the plan — e-mails were finding their way to the Department of Public Works. Within hours, the department had received over a dozen letters from Liberty Hill neighbors. The proposal was tabled until a public hearing could be held on the matter.
The Mission grid is carved up into a quilt of overlapping neighborhood and parks associations. Usually formed for the purpose of organizing things like park clean-up days, the associations also have the power to mobilize significant numbers of people around a controversy du jour.
Those controversies, though, tend to be be extremely local — the coffee carts in Dolores Park, the slumbering drunks and day laborers in Garfield Park. Aa a neighborhood where concerned residents have routine face-time with their supervisor and the local police captain, the Mission seems to be an incubator for a particular brand of direct democracy on steroids.
“This is why nothing is easily accomplished in this town. We need to talk it to death,” said one Mission resident who is involved with multiple neighborhood groups himself, on the subject of the kerfuffle.
“I was definitely surprised that there was any protest about it,” said Eileen Hassi, owner of Ritual, who responded quickly with an e-mail of her own to the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association, attempting to allay concerns. Hassi says she’s been trying to turn the space into a park since 2005.
Until now, the space has been a park for exactly one day every year, on PARK(ing) Day, a guerilla action started by the local landscape collective REBAR. On one day in September, people all across San Francisco and elsewhere turn parking spaces into temporary parks via the simple measure of commandeering the nearest parking meter and keeping it filled with quarters. “I get to meet people in the neighborhood who don’t drink coffee,” said Hassi, about why Ritual’s temporary parks made her want a more longterm one. “People are striking up conversations and talking about the neighborhood, getting to know each other.”
The flurry of objections ended anticlimactically. Nick Elsner of DPW noted that he had received over 100 e-mails about the only two proposed parklets that received public objections: Ritual and farm:table in the Tenderloin. Of the more than 60 e-mails concerning the Ritual location, about a third were in opposition.
But at the hearing this past Wednesday that was scheduled because of the opposition to the parklet, Teitelbaum was not present. She had expressed ambivalence about being potentially perceived as the leader of the opposition.
None of the approximately 20 people who had sent e-mails objecting to the project was present. Of about a dozen people who sat through four different appeals regarding excessive tree pruning to speak about the Ritual parklet, not one was opposed.
Almost all of those who testified in favor of Ritual were residents of the block or owners of neighboring businesses, including the two independent designers who helped draft the plans. Many were longtime residents of 10 years or more.
“They are a real boon to the neighborhood,” said Amandeep Jawa, who is the first private resident to receive approval for a parklet in front of his own house on Valencia. “The problem on Valencia is not successful businesses, it’s narrow sidewalks — Valencia is a pedestrian street in spite of itself.” A parklet, Jawa added, would help alleviate walkway congestion.
Rachel Weidinger, another neighbor, said that Ritual’s participation in past PARK(ing) Days have given her faith in their ability to execute the parklet idea well. “A business owner wants to put their own resources into this as a gift to the general public. I think that’s a generosity that should be noted, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
Ophelia Lau, the DPW hearing officer, concluded the meeting, promising a decision within two weeks. Whatever the decision, she says, it is appealable by either party to the citywide Board of Appeals (that is, for a $250 fee).
But the decision carries a greater significance for residents like Jawa, who believes it represents a wider debate on how to envision his city. “I love this Valencia liveliness, the fact that there’s always people,” he said. “The Mission is one of those places where we are certainly cognizant of the downsides of the urban. But we also celebrate the upside. We get those connections — this is the kind of place where we want to live.”