For the businesses around the areas of Valencia Street closed off to car traffic, outcomes of the program have varied, and opinions are mixed about whether it’s a good idea.
To be sure, it has been a big success for the restaurants and businesses between 16th and 17th streets and 18th and 19th streets, according to Mauricio Guerra, manager of Limón Rotisserie.
“It was very helpful, to be honest,” said Guerra. “People were respectful. It didn’t get too crowded. All the restaurants are doing great.”
And the spill-over has been significant enough for some between 17th and 18th Streets.
Hawker Fare is one of those. With the street in front of Hawker Fare still open to private vehicles, they have had the best of both worlds. The restaurant tripled its pandemic-era weekend sales during the inaugural four days of the pilot program, while staying accessible for Doordash and Caviar delivery drivers, which are responsible for 25 percent of Hawker Fare’s business, according to manager Dolly Valdez Bautista.
“I like that I’m not closed, we have parking … People drive past and see Hawker Fare and come back.”
Valdez Bautista said foot traffic was way up, and many new diners had not known about Hawker Fare before the closure. Since July 23, Valencia Street has been blocked off to car traffic from Thursday through Sunday, and each day Hawker Fare made more than $9,000.
“We never had an empty seat,” said Valdez Bautista.
But it’s not all peachy for Hawker Fare. On Sundays at 8 p.m., the Department of Public Works cleans Valencia Street, and the wastewater flows downhill — right onto the sidewalk where customers are dining.
“It really kills the mood for our guests. I make a kind of joke, like, ‘Oh, next time don’t forget to bring your paper boats,’ but I was having an off day, or the kitchen messed up on a order, and [flooding] happened, I would have to comp the whole check.”
This has been an issue for four weeks, since Hawker Fare expanded outdoors through the Shared Spaces Program. And, as popularity has gone up, the problem has only gotten more visible. Valdez Bautista has contacted Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office as well as DPW, asking them to clean the streets either later at night or early in the morning, when customers are not around. In addition to being embarrassing, Valdez Bautista said the flooding could cut into profits as well.
For many other nearby businesses devastated by the pandemic, the program has not been as profitable.
“They are shuffling everyone away from my block,” said Lisa Sherratt, owner of Serendipity, a gift shop that sells cards, soaps, and jewelry on Valencia and 19th Street, just outside of where the street closure begins.
Already, the coronavirus has cut her sales anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent depending on the day. Unlike Hawker Fare, her block did not see a substantial increase in foot traffic with the closure of Valencia Street. As a result, sales have remained devastatingly low, she said.
Sherratt said retail businesses between 19th and 20th streets would benefit from a street closure, giving diners a chance to shop before their reservations.
“If you know there’s a street closure and you know you can come and get dinner, maybe you’ll come an hour beforehand and do some shopping,” said Sherratt.
Sherratt supports extending the street closure to 20th Street, but acknowledged that not all businesses can operate effectively outdoors, including hers. At present, she does not have the resources to place additional staff outdoors to deter would-be shoplifters.
“For me, it wouldn’t work to go outside. There’s too many little things that could blow away, it would be weather-dependent. On a windy, foggy night, there wouldn’t be as many people.”
According to Manny Yekutiel, a member of a Valencia Corridor Merchants Association and the Small Business Commission who played a large role in creating the plan to close off parts of Valencia, the current area of 16th to 17th and 18th to 19th was selected through a survey of Valencia Street merchants. Those most excited about the idea of a street closure were on the chosen blocks. Yekutiel said expanding the closure further south is a possibility.
“I absolutely think that there is a justification to expand the closure to other blocks of Valencia and other parts of the Mission,” said Yekutiel. “I know that restaurants between 20th and 21st are interested in having their blocks shut down, the blocks with Amado’s and Lolo’s, and I think there needs to be a critical mass of merchants who want to participate.”
He said it’s likely the city wants to see that it goes safely before expanding.
Not everyone shared Sherratt’s and Yekutiel’s opinion. Johanna Bialkin, owner of Aldea Home and Baby on Valencia near 20th Street, said she prefers not to be a part of the Valencia Street closure program, mainly for the safety of her staff and customers. Even at her business, she only allows five customers in her store at a time to allow for social distancing.
“I don’t want to have hoards of people on 18th and 19th. [Already] sometimes there’s more people than I’d like,” said Bialkin.
Bialkin has also not seen any real increase in foot traffic or sales at her brick-and-mortar storefront, although hers is considered an essential business and has been open through the pandemic. Her business is down only about 40 percent, thanks to an increase in online orders.
Paula Capovilla and Pablo Romano, who own Venga Empanadas, located near 15th Street, north of the closed-off portions of Valencia, are also lukewarm to a street closure. They saw a slight boost in foot traffic, unlike Serendipity, even though both are roughly a block away,
“We got the leftovers.” said Romano.
Just like Hawker Fare, Venga Empanadas gets a large chunk of its business through delivery apps, and with the advent of COVID-19, delivery has doubled, becoming nearly 30 percent of total revenue. Although more foot traffic would be nice, they said, they have concerns about social distancing and making sure that food delivery drivers, as well as the truck that delivers their flour, have easy access to their storefront.
“I would be open to giving it a try, if it’s from six to 10,” said Romano. “But we are dependent on food apps, and the social aspect is a risk.”
That area of 15th Street used to be a part of the closure plan, according to Yekutiel, but it was cut because there are few businesses on the west side of that block of Valencia, and because Munroe Motors, a motorcycle shop which has operated on Valencia Street for 60 years, requires vehicle access to operate. Closing the street to car traffic could harm the business, according to Yekutiel.
“We didn’t want to put them into a dangerous place,” he said.
Amy Beinart, chief of staff for Hilary Ronen’s office, said that it is too early to say if there will be any expansion of street closure programs on Valencia or beyond.
“Ronen wants to think very creatively about how to provide spaces for businesses to operate safely, and we will look at this first phase as a pilot and see what lessons should be applied [regarding] whether we are going to expand this or not,” said Beinart. “At this point, we are still gathering feedback and look forward to the next weekend.”
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