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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