A parklet. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

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. 


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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. • There are (at least) three “shared” spaces structures standing in the northbound commute hour bike lane on Polk Street (1400 and 1700 blocks).
    • Bike racks have been removed or blocked (SFMTA didn’t really care enough to follow up with me on their strategy for addressing this).
    • Hundreds of existing structures lack reflectors and a visible address on the street facing side.
    • Many current structures have siding made of 4 by 8 sheets of plywood, which means their opaque sides exceed the limit by six inches. That 42″ limit was imposed in order to reduce the extent to which the structures blocked views and chopped up public space into small box-like units of private space.
    • Most current structures do not have the required 3 foot emergency access opening every twenty feet. I say “most” because the majority of the ones that have the three foot opening have electrical cords, roof and other materials that cross over the openings rendering them useless for ladder access. Some (I’m thinking Fillmore Street in Stefani’s district) have the openings with a tree, parking meter, or steel bollard preventing easy passage through them.
    • Restaurants have gone crazy buying propane heaters. Few if any of them use and store them legally. I thought the city was trying to do away with natural gas. I know restaurants were carved out from that legislation, but certainly that was for cooking purposes not for warming up outside seating that might get invented after the legislation was passed. LPG is hard to store legally, is dangerous, and is far from “green” or even carbon neutral.
    • Actual public parklets will become obsolete going forward because legally privatized “shared” spaces will make them a more lucrative option for businesses.
    • The permit for a “shared space” must belong solely to the business and not the landlord. Pre-COVID, a lot of restaurants were constructively evicted by rent-gouging landlords. If a tenant installs a “shared space,” it is guaranteed that value of that additional (untaxed) real estate will be taken into consideration by the property owner when the next lease is negotiated. That will not bode well for the tenant.

    During a Zoom meeting in late April, I asked an SFFD Captain what he could tell me about the multiple code violations at virtually all of the “shared” spaces structures that have grown like weeds since the program started last summer. He told us that the Mayor ordered city departments not to inspect those structures or enforce any of the actual agreed to requirements stated in the signed application. He specifically mentioned (because I asked him to) that that also meant no enforcement of the state fire code, including the legal use and safe storage of liquid propane gas. That criminal job failure is why we have had LPG stored adjacent to traffic; non-ADA compliant structures; electrical cords dangling across the sidewalk; and, substandard design, materials and construction. Given how readily SFMTA, SFFD, and SF Public works caved to Breed’s preposterous and illegal order against code enforcement, whatever legislation is enacted needs to be very clear on the full scope of responsibilities of the businesses that build the structures and the agencies tasked with inspecting them and citing violations. Additionally, there needs to be a clear and easy way for individuals to make complaints and follow their progress. 311 is hopelessly slow, confusing and as I’ve learned subject to having complaints magically disappear. I’ve been told that can’t happen, of course, but my screen shots show otherwise.

    I appreciate the positive aspects of outdoor seating, but thus far the “emergency” plan was been a Wild West unregulated free-for-all. The ceding of public space to private enterprise is concerning to me, and I don’t think a single bench will make up for it. That said, initial and recurring fees on the structures could be used to fund the creation of city-built parklets, particularly in underserved neighborhoods.

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  2. Don’t call them parklets. We already have a parklet program, but businesses have complained that the permitting/building costs of parklets (which are ADA-compliant and open to the public 24-hours a day) are too expensive. “Shared Spaces” is the City’s gift to restaurants: a way to circumvent and replace parklets, forever.

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  3. Dreary high-rises steal our sun.
    Shanty parklets disgrace our streets.
    Developers with Iowa architects block our vistas
    Government trading our common goods.
    Interest Groups that create “Shared Spaces.” Care Diem.
    This most recent visual and physical assault on the city is astounding. With real estate this cheap why wouldn’t the GGRA push this idea? With support from GGRA why wouldn’t Breed support it? Yes there is a crises. Yes there is a financial burden. Great! Let’s cash in on it! Now, it’s “(My) Shared Spaces Forever.” This is the reasoning that gave us Uber, Airbnb, and security cameras in our neighborhoods. Ask Jeff Bezos what a pandemic is worth.

    Stop and dine and shop? Forget it.
    Handicap access? Forget it.
    Cafes and shops with empty boxes hardly sadly beckon.
    Obscured from the streets by the barricades they built.
    Sidewalks so chaotic they demand an exit.
    Aren’t they just debris bins in the rain and wind and daytime? Aren’t they rat sanctuaries? What happens when the business closes? How permanent is permanent? Can they be sublet?Are there any constraints on what can be built? What they look like?
    Will DPW or DBI be the enforcer of the rules? Grease my palms, baby. Will they be the new taxi medallions?
    Once we were “The City that knows how.” Some even said we were “The Paris of the West.” So long cafe society.
    2,100 “Shared Spaces.“ Hardly.

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  4. As everything in San Francisco goes. Temporary means permanent in the eyes of liberals! Enough is enough. The parklets have served their purpose, as have the slow streets. Get rid of them all and focus on the corruption at city hall, the board of stupidvisors and at DBI and Planning.

    Spend some energy on cleaning up this filthy city and worry about getting rid of the useless DA and making the city safe to start getting tourists monies coming back to this once beautiful city!!!

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  5. I feel that these parklets served a good and necessary cause but by now, their need will soon be over…hopefully!
    This new addition to street life, from my perspective, is both extremely ugly, poorly constructed, some already falling apart. and already taking away possible parking spots for those who want to do business with stores unlucky to be placed on a block with 1, 2 3, 4 parklets.
    If S.F. had a good and adequate public transport system, some of these concerns could be mitigated, but for me, this parklet spread has become nothing but an eyesore and a take over of the public space.

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  6. How about we do a little trade for the public good. All the private entities that use public space for private profit should allow public access to their indoor restrooms. That would clear up one issue that that need to taken care of. Bathrooms for all.

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  7. I live near Valencia and 18th. While the parklets have served the neighborhood and businesses well, my primary concern is separation from active vehicular lanes. There is currently no plan to install bollards (real ones that can stop an automobile from killing/injuring someone) around the parklets. It is only a matter of time until the incidents begin to show more numbers.

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    1. The one outside Horsefeather at Divis and Fell got creamed on both ends in one fell swoop.

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