Rendering of a new parklet for Venga Empanadas!

If all goes according to plan, the Mission will have five new parklets, which are miniature parks that slightly extend portions of sidewalk into the street to offer decorative seating to the general public, by early next year. That would give the the neighborhood 16 parklets in total, with 13 on Valencia Street.

The Mission’s 12 existing parklets make up approximately 20 percent of the 57 parklets in San Francisco.

But as parklets in the Mission have become popular fixtures for coffee shops and restaurants, some critics say that parklets have become too privatized — there for the patrons of the restaurants and cafes, but not really for the general public.

The parklet in front of Dandelion Chocolate is nearly complete. Arizmendi Bakery on 24th and Valencia will install a parklet in front of its store in September. Two parklets — one in front of Samovar Tea and and another in front of Venga Empanadas — are awaiting approval from San Francisco Planning Commission. And Luna Rienne art gallery on 22nd and Valencia will soon introduce the fourth iteration of its existing parklet.  

“If it’s just an extension of the business, and at the end of the business day there’s no place to sit, then it’s just a piece of concrete,” said Jefferson McCarley, general manager at Mission Bicycle Shop and a member of the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association (VCMA).

McCarley drew a distinction between parklets that are intended to build community and others that only provide extra seating for a restaurant or cafe. He said that a “good” parklet can strike a balance between the two.  The association has yet to oppose a parklet, he said “but there have been designs we’ve been less inclined to support.” The latter, he said, are parklets that offer little or no seating after business hours – true of four or so existing parklets on Valencia and some new parklet designs.

A good parklet, McCarley said, can be used after a business has closed. McCarley pointed to the parklets sponsored by Ritual Coffee Roasters and Freewheel Bike Shop as prime examples of good parklets – those that can be accessed by the community at all times, especially because of their permanent seating.

But others, McCarley said, like cafe Blue Fig and the Crepe House – both of which have little or no seating after business hours – have drifted conceptually from the original public spaces pioneered ten years ago during “Park(ing) Day,” when architectural designers from design studio Rebar transformed a single metered parking space into a miniature park.

Indeed, the parklet sponsored by the Crepe House on 22nd and Valencia Streets has no built in seating. But Shar Haddadin, owner of the restaurant, said that being able to remove the seating after business hours reduces the chances of the parklet attracting nuisances, such as loitering and late-night rowdiness. “When the bars let out there are no benches here for drunk people to sit down and make noise,” he said, citing concerns for the residences above his restaurant.

Yet Haddadin said that he’s recently considered installing benches into the parklet. They would be short in length to prevent napping. “I’m concerned about homeless people during businesses hours,” he said.

Despite its furniture being re-moveable and matching the restaurant’s color scheme, Haddadin feels that many people – such as students from City College of San Francisco across the street – use his parklet as a public space, and that those who sit down don’t necessarily feel pressure to buy something.

For Haddadin, the parklet as a public gathering space is ultimately about attracting people to his creperie. “The more people the better for my business,” he said.

“Frequently businesses fund parklets completely as an extension of their business space,” said Nathan John, designer of the forthcoming Arizmendi parklet. “They’re not the public space they’re meant to be, but an everyday business operation.”

That, he said, is one of the “perils” of the parklet program. John, who designs public spaces for a living, said that the beauty of parklets is that they’re one kind of public domain transformed into another. But he sees the trend on Valencia Street moving toward more privatized parklets, as more cafes and restaurants build parklets in front of their storefronts. Some of these parklets, he said, can be less inviting to the public, despite the placards that say “public.”

“There are a lot of cues that tell people ‘this isn’t for you – this is for a customer’,” John said. “The best public spaces are those everyone can see themselves in. That’s the gold standard of a public space.”

In a 2014 study that examined parklets on Polk Street, U.C. Berkeley graduate students Alison Ecker and Stella Kim asked: “ … When a public space is not controlled by a public entity, an important question arises: does the public actually understand the function of this type of space? Or, put another way, do people perceive parklets to be public spaces or sites reserved for patrons?”

The study examined various parklet characteristics that could influence passerby perception of the parklet as a public or private space. It looked at the number of tables and chairs, amount of flora, how much the parklet matched the storefront, as well as upkeep, cleanliness, and whether smoking is allowed.

Among the study’s conclusions is that public space connected to businesses can be confusing – that “some people understand a parklet as public space, but still feel pressure to buy something,” it states. Also, the parklet in the lowest income neighborhood – in front of Jebena Cafe on Polk and Geary Streets, which had the lowest upkeep but no tables and chairs — was most clearly considered a public space. But it also faced the most “challenges,” such as fights and the use of the space by homeless, which prompted the owner to take away the tables and chairs.

John, the designer, said that he and Arizmendi’s owners wanted to create a space that is seen as a “neighborhood space and not an Arizmendi space.” According to John, it will have a “semicircle, amphitheater” design that pays tribute to the community meetings once held in the Mission District.

“The best public spaces don’t preclude the individual from sitting down to use space,” he said, pointing to the BART stations on 16th and 24th Streets as some of the most functional and successful public spaces in the Mission. “Public space is a public good that should be afforded to everyone, no matter their neighborhood, class, or race — it’s something everyone needs.”

But John said that even the parklet he designed isn’t exempt from what he believes is a larger systemic flaw in the parklet program — that every parklet needs a private patron. After all, Arizmendi’s public community-forum-themed parklet will sit directly outside the bakery and not somewhere more in need of the public good. That, he explained, might be why there’s such a high concentration of parklets on, or near, Valencia Street and virtually no others in the Mission.

“By outsourcing public good to private entities, it’s difficult to distribute those services,” he said. “So you get a concentration of parklets next to patrons with the resources.”

The planning department says the program provides “opportunities for communities to create small but important public spaces right in their own neighborhoods,” but that means they can also be a luxury of more privileged areas, like Valencia Street.

After permitting from the city, design and construction, an average parklet can cost the sponsor – an individual or business – between $15,000 to $20,000. And upkeep is the sole responsibility of the sponsor, which is why some parklet sponsors might feel a sense of ownership of their investment.

Robin Abad Ocubillo, a project coordinator with the San Francisco Planning Department and head of policy for Pavement to Parks, a collaborative effort between Planning and other city groups to convert street pavement into public space, said that the program hinges on the volition of each neighborhood.

“Certain neighborhoods have been more excited,” he said. “It’s been a more organic process.”

But Ocubillo acknowledged that the lack of parklets in underrepresented areas has been a concern. Which is why, he said, the city’s parklet program is putting together a fund of an undisclosed amount that would offer either matching or competition grants to four to six businesses each year.

“It’s something we’ve thinking about for a very long time,” he said. “We want enable people in communities in all neighborhoods to create public space if they’re wanting it.”

The fund, however, is only meant to assist businesses that have already proposed parklets and is not necessarily aimed at incentivizing businesses to join the program. “The city has to be agnostic about it,” he said. “We take all the proposals and look at them, and respond to the neighborhood’s initiative.”

Regarding the criticism that businesses are merely extending their commercial space, Ocubillo pointed to the planning department’s parklet manual that offers guidelines. It encourages — but does not require — sponsors to integrate permanent seating and other amenities into the parklet’s structure, “so that a parklet still feels welcome[ing] after moveable…tables and seating are taken in at night.”

“When you look at the way parklets’ designs have evolved over years, we’ve moved away from patio platform design toward spaces that are more complex and read more as public spaces,” Ocubillo said.

Luna Rienne Gallery, on 22nd street between Valencia and Guerrero, has used its parklet space for various public art installations since 2011. The newest installation — a forest-like design with various leveled stoops and planters — is to be installed in September.

“No matter your intention, it’s still an opportunity to offer public space for everyone,” said Olivia Ongpin, director of the gallery. “Some places that’s more obvious than others.”

But Ongpin said that parklets are still a hefty investment for businesses, and that there are a lot of liabilities in maintaining completely public space with permanent seating. She said a parklet has to be designed to last.

“They’re out in the middle of the street, they’re not always gonna be pretty,” she said. “How do you prevent skaters from doing ollies all over it?”

Although Ongpin said that her gallery utilizes the parklet as a neighborhood gathering spot for BBQs and major T.V. events, she admitted her parklet is still in front of her gallery and still “obliquely a revenue stream.”

Manuel Godino, founder of Venga Empanadas, said his parklet is still awaiting approval. According to designs, Godino’s parklet will have an orange and blue color scheme that is similar to the restaurant’s, and the designs show little built-in seating. But Godino said “the idea of the parklet is that [it] is a public space. We will respect that concept.”

Jesse Jacobs, founder of Samovar Tea Bar, plans to build a parklet that pays tribute to Shinrin Yoku, a Japanese concept involving “nature bathing,” or health-boosting walks through the forest. Jacobs explained that the concept is an extension of his shop’s mission, which seeks to connect people to nature through the tea leaf.

The parklet, he said, will also include solar charging stations for cell phones and laptops. But Jacobs said his priority is to tie the parklet into the Mission District’s landscape.

“The goal is to create buzz and add value to the neighborhood,” he said. “If it benefits everyone, it’ll benefit the business.”

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1 Comment

  1. Martin Macks on Haight lost its parklet for poor maintenance, serving booze and refusing to put chairs at the tables on many days. Like it or not, the homeless have every right to sit on city property during the day. The Haight Street Market doesn’t chase anyone away (short of illegal behavior), and its parklet is very popular.

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