Valencia Street’s moribund businesses are hoping to receive a jump start — by going car-free.

The city on Thursday officially approved a three-month pilot program in which stretches of Valencia Street will be closed off to car traffic between 16th and 17th streets and 18th and 19th streets between 4 and 10 p.m. from Thursdays until Sundays. Businesses, primarily restaurants, will move seating onto the vacated, traffic-free pavement.

The car-free program kicks off July 23.

“By closing the street, we can add extra space. And we can bring more people back to the job that, unfortunately, we had to lay off,” says Steven Garcia, a manager at Limón Rotisserie on Valencia. “I will be able to put out around 20 tables. And I can hopefully bring back around three or four people.”

Today’s approval comes after a rigorous two-month process involving a somewhat alarming number of public and private entities.

The move to shunt cars off swaths of Valencia to allow COVID-19-crippled businesses to serve customers in the open air was hatched by the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association and quarterbacked by its board member Manny Yekutiel, the proprietor of Manny’s at 16th and Valencia streets, and a member of the Small Business Commission.

The Mission Merchants Association backed the plan, as did community leaders Roberto Hernandez and William Ortiz-Cartagena. On the government side, both Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Hillary Ronen got involved, as did the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the mayor’s office, the Planning Department and, for good measure, the Fire and Police Departments.

Yekutiel contacted every merchant on this stretch of the corridor and left fliers emblazoned with a QR code on the doors of neighboring residents.

All of this took some 60 days, a svelte timeline by San Francisco’s glacial standards.

manny's

Manny’s proprietor Manny Yekutiel was described by longtime Mission activist and organizer William Ortiz-Cartagena as the ‘quarterback’ of the plan to shunt cars off portions of Valencia. ‘The point of this is to give businesses a fighting chance,’ Yekutiel says. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

“That’s quick, but not as quick as I would’ve liked it to have been,” said Mandelman. “Manny and the Valencia Corridor Merchants got this done. But it did require an incredible amount of the organizers at a time when these organizers are facing existential crises. We’re hoping [Valencia Street] is not a one-off, or a two-off or a three-off.”

Ronen called the car-free plan “a perfect opportunity to allow local restaurants and retail businesses to operate safely in the open air.”

Valencia Corridor Merchants Association President Jonah Buffa said that the initial plan was to divert cars from Valencia from 15th to 19th streets. But the bifurcated plan — 16th to 17th and 18th to 19th — soon proved more practical. Mission Police Station is on Valencia and 17th, so you can’t cut off car traffic on that stretch of Valencia. Nor can you bar private vehicles from senior housing on that block — and Mission Community Thrift also needed truck access.

“The city has been surprisingly nimble,” said Buffa, who co-owns Fellow Barber. “They are aware they need to be adaptive to the times.”

Physically distanced tables — or, theoretically, merchandise — will be set up in the bike lane and part of the street. A 26-foot wide gap in the middle of the road will accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, or, if need be, police or fire vehicles.

Portions of Grant Avenue in Chinatown will also go car-free on limited hours in a similar effort.

“We’re thinking creatively about how we can temporarily repurpose sidewalks, parking lanes, and even entire segments of the street for use by local business communities,” said Robin Abad Ocubillo, the manager of Shared Spaces, a program of the City’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

The Valencia Corridor Merchants will provide the barriers closing off the street, and a volunteer will be on call during the six-hour closure at each entry- and exit-way to open the road if a police car or fire rig approaches.

“We want to bring back some of the old vibe the Mission had,” said Edward Duran, a manager at Taqueria La Cumbre. He plans on putting four tables onto the pavement, but adding more if the pilot program takes off. “The neighborhood has been eerily quiet and that’s really weird for the Mission. We’re hoping we can rouse some interest.”

The business climate for dine-in establishments in the Mission (and every neighborhood) is dire. Nobody is expecting the forthcoming street closures to be some manner of magical economic elixir.

“It is something of a Hail Mary,” admits Mandelman. “But if we can do something to support these businesses, we should. And I hope the activation of public spaces is one of the silver linings of this period.”

And, as Duran notes, “we’ll take whatever help we can get.”

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