By Thomas K. Pendergast
After the first time the City shut down last year in March in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it became apparent that restaurants, bars and clubs would not be opening up again anytime soon. People were losing jobs as small businesses struggled.
Like a lot of towns across the country, the City eventually allowed outdoor dining with proper social distancing. But now that the viral threat seems to be receding, the question of which sidewalk-hugging structures should remain and which should revert to parking spaces is unanswered.
What might seem like a fairly straight-forward situation is actually a bit complicated, as questions of private versus public space concerns are also popping up for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
On May 24, an ordinance went before the Land Use and Transportation Committee of the Board of Supervisors to amend a city code to rename the “Places for People” program as the “Shared Spaces” program.
The ordinance was also designed to “clarify the roles and responsibilities of various departments regarding activation and use of city property and public right-of-way, streamline the application process, specify minimum programmatic requirements, such as public access, setting permit and license fees, and provide for the conversion of existing Parklet and Shared Spaces permittees to the new program requirements.”
Six hours after the meeting started, and after extensive public comment, the committee decided it needed more information and delayed its decision to June 7 when it will take it up again.
Shared Spaces program Director Robin Abad-Ocubillo said a survey conducted by the San Francisco Office of Small Business and researchers at San Francisco State University showed that small businesses in San Francisco heavily depend on local residents.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) now puts the total number applications for these spaces at 2,500 throughout the City. More than 76% of those applications have been approved.
A task force focused on economic recovery, along with Mayor London Breed, concluded that it was worth exploring making these spaces permanent.
On March 12, Breed announced she would seek to move forward with allowing permanent status for shared spaces.
“Shared Spaces have brought people so much joy and an opportunity to safely enjoy their neighborhood and support local businesses during an otherwise incredibly challenging time,” Breed said. “They have also been a lifeline for business owners, providing restaurants, cafes and stores with the space they need to offer outdoor services and keep their businesses going. Seeing people dining and enjoying themselves outdoors has been amazing, and I know this program will be an incredible asset for our city as we recover and move forward.”
Monica Munowitch of the SFMTA said the current proposal has three different permit types: public parklets, the dominant type of parklet before the pandemic; commercial moveable parklets, which can be taken out and set up when needed but put away to clear the sidewalk or street after business hours; and commercial permanent parklets, structures set up like those that have become prevalent in the last year.
The fee structure for the businesses would be a $1,000 fee for a public parklet; a $2,000 fee for a commercial moveable parklet; and a $3,000 fee for the commercial permanent parklet.
During the hearing, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston asked why the new program focused on private businesses, essentially taking public space to accommodate their clients, instead of returning to a “public parklet” model open to everyone, as most were before the pandemic.
“I think all of us have enjoyed the experience of our streets and shared spaces being activated, so it’s sad it took a pandemic for us to see the outdoors activated in this way,” Preston said. “But I think it’s one of the positive things that has come out of a difficult time. We’ve been through a time when all of us were OK with a level of private activity on a public space because of the desperate situation and effectively privatizing these spaces. I think most of us would probably agree that there still needs to be some more time with that.
“But looking into next year and the year beyond, this proposes a move from what was a public parklet with full public access to these three models and I’d just like to hear the reasoning for that,” Preston continued. “Why not have the longer-term plan – a return to spaces that can be fully accessed by the public? It’s a pretty fundamental shift in how we approach these spaces.”
Abad-Ocubillo responded that being able to use the parklet during business hours and provide table service that had not been allowed before was central to the adaptation of the parklet type for this use and purpose.
“If we’re going to create an outdoor dining program, this is one of the ways we could do it … create a version of the parklet that allows for that,” Abad-Ocubillo said. “We still have the public parklet option. That is still very much something that a sponsor who is not focused on a commercial use can do for the neighborhood.”
Preston did not seem entirely persuaded.
“I do think that there’s a more significant shift that we just have to be really mindful of as this moves forward,” Preston said. “I think this, effectively, will eliminate the public parklet. I just can’t see very many businesses that are going to want to pay for a public parklet that anyone can sit at that they have no control over, when the other option is, for a thousand or two thousand bucks, they basically have private space.”
District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai, on the other hand, strongly supports making these spaces permanent, saying that shared spaces, popping up across the City like mushrooms, was an unintended positive result of the pandemic.
“So many of these businesses are hurting, not only for their customer base and their gross receipts, but also in back rent,” Safai said. “And this is something that we’re going to be talking about over the next few weeks, that a lot of commercial tenants are hurting in terms of how they are going to survive.
“This has been a lifeline,” he said. “If we had tried, as planners, to do this, it would never have happened in San Francisco.”