A permanent Shared Spaces program is supposed to help struggling businesses, but not everyone can afford it

Advocates say ‘one-size-fits-all’ fees and outreach disadvantage vulnerable merchants

As city officials prepare to make Shared Spaces permanent, The San Francisco Examiner set out to explore the potential impacts of the popular program, which began as a temporary emergency measure introduced during the pandemic to help small business. Today’s story is the first of three in a planned series. You can read the second installment here.

When Freddy Gamez built a parklet outside his Mission Street restaurant last summer, his bank account was practically drained and the seafood joint he had owned for nine years was barely surviving.

He cut a check for roughly $5,500 from his personal savings to construct a Shared Spaces platform in the single parking space outside Mission Street Oyster House. It only fits two tables – five total if you count the additional sidewalk seating – but Gamez wanted to make the space nice for the customers.

Now, with a legislative proposal for a permanent version of Shared Spaces expected to make its way in front of the Board of Supervisors at some point in May, Gamez could soon face a crossroads: pay up to $6,000 in fees to occupy that same parking space for one year, followed by up to $3,000 in annual renewal fees for subsequent years plus the cost of beautification and maintenance of the parklet, or ditch the outdoor dining investment altogether.

“I think it would definitely be a big help for us. But if they make this permanent, I will have to make this nicer,” Gamez said of the parklet. “We could benefit a lot from this, but then again I don’t know what kind of fees The City will be willing to charge us.”

Gamez’s story is not unique, especially in the Mission District where a coalition of community groups, merchants and other stakeholders has formed to demand structural equity in the crafting of a permanent Shared Spaces program.

Gentrification had pushed out dozens of immigrant-owned, mom-and-pop and other tenured neighborhood businesses in the Mission District well before the pandemic, and these groups argue it is essential that Shared Spaces doesn’t become another tale of the haves versus the have-nots.

“The reality for a business in San Francisco is this: you either have the capital or you don’t,” said Peter Papadopoulos, a policy analyst at the Mission Economic Development Agency. “These programs are meant to be opportunities for businesses, but if you don’t have the capital to build an outside structure, not only are you trying to recover from the pandemic, but now you’re trying to compete with other businesses that are fully operational outside.”

City officials acknowledge this disparity. They point to the $2.3 million Shared Spaces equity program crafted in March and other efforts to allocate resources for The City’s most underserved neighborhoods to demonstrate the program’s focus on equity.

“Mayor London Breed wants to ensure that as many small businesses as possible can participate in the legislation and we are exploring further equity provisions in the legislation. Additional details will be announced soon,” said Robin Abad, who helps oversee the program from the Planning Department, in an email.

But, so far, those provisions have not been made public, and Mission District advocates have some ideas of their own for how to rectify structural equity concerns.

Chief among them, a sliding scale for the annual platform fees.

Under the current proposal, annual permit fees to occupy a parking space vary based on type of parklet.

A totally public parklet is the cheapest at $1,000 per parking space for the first year; a movable commercial parklet that can be deconstructed outside of business hours costs $3,000; and a permanent commercial parklet costs $6,000.

For all, additional parking spaces mean more fees of lesser cost, and the annual renewal fees drop by 50 percent for movable and permanent commercial parklets each subsequent year.

Merchants in the Mission say a blanket fee is intrinsically inequitable, and instead call for fees that correspond with the income, resources and general environment of a business.

As Papadopoulos puts it, a taqueria in the Mission District shouldn’t have to foot the same bill as a high-end eatery in Pacifics Heights or the Marina.

Second, they’re calling for The City to improve outreach and tailor its tactics on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

The Mission District has a high percentage of immigrant-owned businesses with merchants often speaking Spanish as their primary language. Yet many say they haven’t been given sufficient opportunity to consider how a permanent outdoor dining program could impact their commercial corridors, nor have they been reached in their first language or dominant mode of communication, often in-person.

Many people report feeling as though community input was largely left to the last minute as the legislation was rushed through.

“Folks feel like the Planning Department and city agencies are planning on top of us,” said Kelly Hill, who works with United to Save the Mission and himself is a co-owner of a design business in the area. “They come with these one-size-fits-all things that are really almost out of reach and expect everyone to jump on the train and instantly navigate all this stuff.”

When business owners and residents have been given the chance to voice their opinions, it’s usually in English, according to Gamez. He said he attended engagement meetings with The City early in the pandemic, but has since stopped because he found the lack of response to feedback discouraging.

“They make it sound at the beginning like they’re starting a project, but really they already know what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re not going to change it. No matter how we complain or how we suggest things, they don’t do anything about it.”

For its part, The City maintains it has engaged extensively with local commercial corridors, including “some neighborhood outreach in languages other than English,” has made materials available in multiple languages online and intends to continue doing so throughout the transition to permanence.

Finally, Mission businesses are also looking for provisions in the legislation that guarantee financial support for The City’s most vulnerable businesses.

Gamez received word last week that he will receive $2,000 from one of The City’s grant programs, a partial reimbursement for the bill he footed for his parklet last summer.

But his experience is not the norm.

MEDA alone helped 30 businesses on and around Mission Street apply for money from SF Shines, a program designed to help small businesses reopen. Only three have received financial support, a result of the overwhelming demand and limited supply of aid money, according to city officials.

“If there are limited resources, we should be prioritizing our most vulnerable businesses,” Papadopoulos said. “They are the entrepreneurs who would benefit most from a parklet; however, they have the most obstacles to build such a parklet.”

These businesses need capital up front. That could mean money to help with parklet construction, the promise of reimbursement if a merchant has to deconstruct the platform for infrastructure projects, or support navigating the application. That process can be trying for a merchant whose first language isn’t English or has had to lay off workers as a result of the pandemic and therefore has limited time to compile the materials, for example.

The risks of failing to build equity into the legislation are high, advocates say, and could lead to even more troubling inequitable outcomes in already vulnerable communities of color.

But the potential rewards for doing it right are even higher.

“I think there would be a lot more people who would open their eyes a little more to it and want to explore it,” Hill said. “It’s going to be a little while before we’re back to the way things were.”


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