Pedestrians, cyclists, and dining tables will soon be on the pavement on swaths of Valencia Street during limited hours. File photo, August 2017

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 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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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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14 Comments

    1. Hey there. That’s in the article. Bikes will go down the middle of the road on those two, one-block stretches.

      JE

  1. I have supported closing Valencia (and other streets) to car traffic since well before it was fashionable. Or, in this example, profitable. As with closing Market Street to non-commercial (motor) vehicles, installing parklets, creating protected bike lanes (and bike parking corrals), so too with car-free Valencia Street.

    Small business/restaurant push-back against street reconfigurations that would return public spaces to people, rather than the cars they sit in or abandon at the side of the street, has slowed, compromised, or stopped many projects. Think of Ed Lee’s optometrist and the northbound Polk Street bike lane – and the many other businesses on Polk that also needed “their” parking spot to survive. Or, farther back, to the time the original Valencia Street bike lanes were installed. Or the sake shop on Hayes Street that put a silly sign in their window when two restaurants down the block and across the street installed a parklet (yes, the sake shop whose delivery vehicles often double park because we couldn’t possibly have delivery parking spaces that are respected and enforced). Or the current whining about the pilot protected bike lane project on Fell Street between Baker and Stanyan. Or, really, any proposed road diet, greening project, traffic calming measure, Muni only lane, or bicycle infrastructure investment.

    A year or two ago, there was some muted discussion of making the expensive shopping/dining blocks of Hayes Street car-free. That was a decidedly unpopular idea, at least to the “influencers.” Private cars, Uber and Lyft (also private cars, though still euphemistically referred to as “shared”), delivery trucks, and the 21 Hayes bus needed unfettered access. Yet closing the street to traffic is not incompatible with deliveries and public transit. Amsterdam’s Leidsestraat is a crowded and narrow commercial street with private vehicle restrictions. Not only do stores and restaurants remain well-stocked, but the tram lines run down the middle of the street on overlapping tracks. Surely the “City that knows how” can figure out how to replicate that.

    I am happy to see restaurants taking advantage of the city’s encouragement of creative repurposing of sidewalks, parking spaces, and streets. Should there ever be a time post-pandemic, it will be interesting to see if all these new converts to the cause stick with it.

    1. Marcos —

      To start with, they applied. Many, many local restaurants and similar establishments got loans. So did Bi-Rite and Rainbow Grocery and so many others. The purpose of a PPP loan is to pay your staff. There’s nothing inherently sinister about it, especially for small, neighborhood-serving businesses.

      When large businesses with access to capital and lines of credit start receiving hefty “loans,” then that warrants a different kind of scrutiny.

      JE

  2. Wear your masks, people! According to today’s NY Times only 60% of the Mission residents wear masks.

  3. What can be done to make this permanent? Are there groups trying to help make this a permanent pedestrian / bike only streets? 3 month pilot seems short. We won’t have a vaccine until mid 2021

    1. So we are going to pack up valencia Street? They already put the tables right along the residential doorways. Y’all are selfish and entitled.

  4. I’d this to succeed but I’ll write my concern here anyway.

    If there is only one of these things for only two blocks long It become the only the places to be, – and crowded. A success kills story.

  5. This is really going to mess up people trying to drop off and pick up pets that are getting care at Mission Pet Hospital. Also, pickups being done by Caviar/Grubhub/UberEats/PostMates drivers are going to be disrupted.

  6. As someone who lives at 20th and Valencia I support this but it does make me feel a little like a prisoner. We have seen many in these blocks not wearing masks while they mill around. I won’t go near it until there is more oversight on masks.

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