Mau on Valencia Street. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

It took a pandemic but, in short order, some San Francisco commercial corridors have been transformed into European-like enclaves of outdoor dining, thanks to the city’s Shared Spaces program. 

In the past three months, more than 1,200 applications for outdoor dining have been approved. For context, that is more than the city approved in the two years prior to January 2020.

Outdoor dining’s pandemic-driven saving grace is the Shared Spaces program: a crisis-driven experiment in San Francisco to offer struggling restaurants a hand.

“It is important to try things out on the ground that are temporary and reversible,” Ben Grant, the Urban Design Policy Director at SPUR, said. “The sky doesn’t fall most of the time.”

So, in no time at all, the city’s “infamously onerous,” permit system, said Grant, became user-friendly. Soon after the Shared Spaces Program’s May 26 launch, the city had a slew of impromptu outdoor seating areas throughout the city, and Shared Spaces Street Closures, like those on Valencia Street and Grant Avenue.

Many of the new seating areas are parklet-like nooks converted from parking spaces, and they have abounded in areas such as Chestnut Street, Valencia Street, and Green Street. 

Rosamunde Sausage Grill on Mission Street. Photo by Lydia Chavez.
Curry Up Now on Valencia Street. Photo by Lydia Chavez.
Nob Hill Cafe on Taylor Street. Photo by Hayden Manseau.

Robin Abad-Ocubillo, a senior planner at the San Francisco Planning Department, says that even though regulations are important and well-intentioned, small business owners are often hamstrung.

Grant explained it this way: “Each code is valid in itself, but when you add them all up and scatter them across 10 different departments – then ask a low-income immigrant family to navigate them – it is difficult.” 

Permits were also prohibitively expensive. Some San Francisco businesses paid $2,870 per year, prior to the Shared Spaces Program, to put tables and chairs on the sidewalk.

Shared Spaces has demonstrated how easily those hurdles to outdoor dining can be removed. 

Everyone from businesses to city planners says the experience could forever change San Francisco’s dining and urban landscape.

“Restaurants, bars, and stores are important. They are culture. They are what make a city a distinctive place,” Grant said.

This reality made city planners decide that maintaining these establishments is more important than maintaining an arms length posture toward helping profit-making establishments or preserving parking spaces.   

For every ad-hoc dining nook constructed, the city has to take away public space from another use – most often, parking and driving space. For the time being, the public seems to agree with architect David Baker who said that he is “all for converting car space to people space” and prefers the noise of vibrant street life to traffic noise. 

“It is great to see this anarchistic trend of creativity and relaxation of regulation that also allows people to survive,” Baker said gleefully. 

Baker is not alone in his support of the program. 

Abad-Ocubillo, who oversees the Shared Spaces program, agreed. “Shared Spaces has been very successful. It is widely embraced and is seen as essential for business survival.” 

“You can see the appetite and enthusiasm for conducting public life in this way,” he added. “San Francisco is not necessarily renowned for its outdoor dining culture, and maybe this is because of the regulatory environment.”

Abad-Ocubillo says that the success of the program suggests it could become a longer-term or even permanent feature of public life in San Francisco. 

The San Francisco Planning Department is in the process of launching an impact assessment of the Shared Spaces Program to measure how much it has helped local businesses.

Kristy Wang, Community Planning Policy Director at SPUR, imagines the program will persist, and looks at Shared Spaces as a massive pilot program for outdoor dining. 

“I have lived in San Francisco for my entire adult life, and bits of it, like North Beach, have that European street-life feeling, but we could have more of that in San Francisco,” Wang said. 

Don Pistos on Union Street in North Beach. Photo by Hayden Manseau.

City planning personnel hope that this moment of profound struggle will cause us to make the most of our public realm moving forward. 

“San Francisco is a melting pot of so many cultural influences and backgrounds,” Abad-Ocubillo said. “I would like to see this flourish even more in the public space.”

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12 Comments

  1. I live around the corner from one of the slow streets blocks of Valencia, and I fully support expansion of the program to everywhere possible, and extending it as a “forever” option, even after the pandemic is over… someday?

    It’s true that the closures have…
    -Brought many more people (and therefore a higher possibility of viral transmission) to my neighborhood
    -Made the neighborhood noisier
    -Made parking more difficult
    -Made biking Valencia St. a total cluster

    But the benefits outweigh the costs. People need people, and most of us will congregate, no matter what. Having a safe(r) outdoor space to do that is essential. In fact, I feel safer during the closure times than I do during lunchtime, when I’m forced to closely pass between seated customers, eating without masks, on both sides of me as I walk the sidewalk. Once the streets close, there is ample room to pass through safely.

    And the vibrancy is delightful! I won’t be going to Europe any time soon, but I can walk half a block and have that feeling.

    Thanks to the Mayor and Supes for getting this done. Please, keep it going!

    1. “in the process of launching an impact assessment”
      They should wait until the first person pre-occupied on the device plows into one of these. I can’t believe the city has allowed these structures to be built and put patrons in harms way without traffic control plans or concrete barriers? Where is the wind or rain protection? DUMB!

  2. I love it. It makes me so happy to see many of our struggling businesses open again, and it feels much more lively. It is a pain to find parking in some neighborhoods, but i’d take that any day over having a bunch of blighted, empty storefronts.

  3. I support the idea of reclaiming public spaces for the public good. Even privatized shared spaces are likely to produce a collective benefit: they bring people out; they keep businesses afloat (somewhat); they keep people employed; they remind us of why we live in a city; and they at least slow the arrival of some of the long-term consequences of the pandemic.

    But the current shared spaces are not perfect.

    Seven or so years ago, for example, many small businesses on Polk Street resisted the street changes that include the inferior bike lanes we ended up with. Ed Lee’s optometrist got the mayor to stop the separated full-time northbound bike lane starting directly in front of that office because apparently no one would be able to buy glasses or contacts there unless they could park directly in front of the narrow storefront.

    The strong resistance to bicycle infrastructure then stands in marked contrast to the loving embrace of shared spaces. Now, the more parking space you can get rid of, the more likely your business will survive. Perhaps those business owners that support shared spaces have learned from past mistakes and will now support greater bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements. Maybe even the owners of the sake store on Hayes Street will get over their anger about the parklet across the street and down the block from them should restaurant-related foot traffic help their sales.

    In many instances it has been commercial loading zones that have been converted to outdoor seating. That creates an obvious problem for commercial delivery vehicle drivers. They can park in non-commercial spaces if available, and some do. More commonly, though, they double park or park in the bike lane. I can’t blame them for this. The businesses and SFMTA created that problem.

    The above-mentioned Ed Lee Memorial Failed Bike Infrastructure Project on Polk Street included a “compromise” north-bound bike lane/no parking zone on weekday mornings from 7 to 10. Since March, the SFMTA has not enforced that three hours of safety for bike riders (enforcement was spotty before then). Additionally, at least two businesses on the 1700 block have built outdoor seating spaces on the part of the street that is supposed to be a temporary bike lane. Four weeks ago I brought this to the attention of the SFMTA and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. They have not responded, nor do I expect them to at this point. At the end of last week, I discussed it with two of Supervisor Peskin’s staff. I made clear that I am not interested in further damaging small businesses (or even I suppose venture-capital-backed restaurants) but there needs to better thinking around how this will be implemented.

    However this experiment develops, I think it would a huge failure to sacrifice hard-won bike lanes and other public space improvements as the city struggles with saving and reinventing public space.

  4. I love this so much on Valencia and really hope it becomes permanent despite some of the downsides (parking, noise, crowd). Actually, I’d venture to guess that once fully reopened, the local business will see more patrons/customers in spite of taking parking spaces away. In Europe, the most profitable parts of town for retail businesses are the ones with pedestrian-only streets.

  5. This program has taken the sidewalks away from pedestrians and turned the streets into giant food courts. Many of the structures are monstrosities that look like military fortresses and give the city an appearance of a war zone. Drunks are spilling out onto the streets creating a frat-house vibe. This is ok during the pandemic, but the Las Vegas Strip is not a good model for San Francisco’s streets. We don’t need to turn our neighborhoods into strip malls.

  6. The goal here is to keep people working so its easy to use support the expansion of dinning into parking spaces. But since food service currently relies on takeout and delivery it is just plain stupid to hinder access via the closure of streets.

  7. When it gets cold, windy, and wet, how’s that gonna work out if covid requires open ventilation? Basically, when poor people hang out boisterously eating, drinking, and jiving on stoops, street corners and sidewalks, it’s called loitering. and a public nuisance. But when people pay money to do it, it’s called charming and vibrant.

  8. I just love it – the delight and the openness of it. But what becomes of all this (sorry to say) when wintry rains arrive?

  9. Yay, Mission Local quoting two–TWO!–SPUR employees about how privatizing public spaces is “sharing.” Like Uber, only for outdoor dining.

    Corporate boosters like SPUR use crises to slip through that which they’ve always wanted, shock doctrine, disaster capitalism.

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