San Francisco is one step closer to solidifying its street food scene.
The Land Use and Transportation Committee continued its discussion on preserving the Shared Spaces program, a pandemic-born initiative that streamlined outdoor dining and parklet permits so local business could resume safely outside.
Mayor London Breed announced legislation in March to make the program permanent, and has been pressured to revise it, Supervisor Aaron Peskin said on Monday. Nevertheless, supervisors presented numerous amendments to the mayor’s proposal and plan to vote on these at the next Land Use meeting on June 18.
The vote will affect more than 2,100 temporary parklets built in the last year in front of cafes and some retail stores.
The development pleased dozens of restaurant and bar owners, who deemed the program a hit. On Monday, they pleaded with the supervisors for a permanent pathway for “al fresco” feasting, noting that the additions made San Francisco more inviting, decreased crime and speeding, and served as an integral lifeline for businesses when indoor service wasn’t allowed.
“I want to thank the city for throwing us a life preserver in what was, by far, the darkest time for small businesses,” one Hayes Street restaurant bar owner said, adding that he has accrued $200,000 in debt. “It gave us some revenue when we had to shut down three times.”
Dozens of San Franciscans called to urge approval, some while eating dinner at a restaurant, others while at their children’s soccer practice, and one who was in the midst of constructing his own parklet. While a few dissenters added their two cents — one said that retailers and entertainment venues would suffer from the lack of parking spaces, and one Mission resident warned that parades going down 24th Street would be negatively affected — most were in agreement that they wanted to take the life of dining outside.
The emotional and financial toll local business owners endured through the pandemic was clear. More than one business owner reported incurring over $1 million in debt; another said that despite running a business in the city since 2006, this was the first time he’s ever been in the red.
But turning a temporary, emergency program into something permanent requires a different and deliberate process, Peskin said. Along with Supervisor Myrna Melgar, he introduced amendments to the mayor’s original, lengthy proposal. While both supervisors dissected a number of them at length, the public was especially divided on a particular few.
One looming question preceding Shared Spaces is its ability to exist within city safety and Americans with Disability Act standards. In Peskin and Melgar’s amendments, businesses with permanent Shared Space must allow for at least 8 feet of access on a sidewalk more than 12-feet-wide, and 6 feet of access for a smaller sidewalk less than that.
Some senior and disability advocates welcomed this. They had previously expressed concern that plopping all these parklets and outdoor tables permanently onto the sidewalk allots insufficient space to pass through.
“We need to think about this as universal design,” said Jessica Lehman, the executive director of San Francisco’s Senior and Disability Action. Lehman added clear guidelines for inspection and fines for those who don’t abide must also be observed.
On the other hand, small business owners argued that it would be near impossible for some to set up camp outdoors, given the space needed to provide the extra tables and chairs. Already, the Department of Public Works issues sidewalk tables and chairs permits that require only six feet of space.
“If that moves to eight feet, that means we cannot accommodate seating in many, many restaurants and cafes and bars. Twelve feet is not a very wide sidewalk,” said Laurie Thomas, a restaurant owner and the director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. A Mission resident and bar owner agreed, saying that enforcing more would “otherwise penalize businesses.”
Then came the question of public access. Peskin said a “compromise” between businesses and “public space” was that entrepreneurs could have the right to bar the passersby from entering their premises during operating hours, as long as the space was up for grabs after. Melgar disagreed, and suggested that “parties” and other activity may occur and bother neighbors. Furthermore, no one could keep an eye on the spaces after dark.
The latter concern was echoed by quite a few business owners, who said that their parklets had already become magnets for homeless encampments and vandalism. “We have to make sure we work with the homeless. I’ve [had my parklet] open for 10 days, and I had to clean it up three times because of the homeless who stay the night there.”
Supervisor Dean Preston proposed instead that the parklets become accessible to others during business hours, meaning non-patrons could use a stool for a moment and not be asked to leave. A few bar owners rejected this, noting that certain alcohol permits prevented them from serving alcohol in the vicinity of a minor. To avoid an underage person sitting in their parklet, they’d have to forgo their outdoor space altogether.
In addition, transit and climate activists chimed in that parklets shouldn’t interfere with pre-existing bus lanes. On Monday, a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency confirmed that parklets couldn’t be built where bike facilities or bus zones exist. An estimated 200 Shared Spaces zones may also be jeopardized if they prevent adequate crosswalk visibility on the intersection.
If approved, the MTA plans to visit all of the city’s commercial corridors this summer to talk with business owners to ensure that their parklets are placed in safe, legal zones. Businesses that meet the requirements can get permanent permits later in the fall.
Once permanent, business owners will also have to pay a fee, said Monica Munowitch, an MTA representative. The Board of Supervisors will determine a “fee structure,” for business owners who want to permanently maintain their parklets. Costs mentioned on Monday ranged from $1,000 for a parklet, $2,000 for a “movable” parklet, and $3,000 for a commercial parklet. Businesses that earn less than $2 million in gross receipts will get half off.
Peskin submitted an amendment, however, that would allow businesses to stave off paying until March, 2023, acknowledging the financial burden many have suffered in the meantime. Other amendments that were added include extending the Shared Spaces permit deadline to 2022, and looping in Public Works to aid with business operators’ hazardous waste disposal.