Business owners call for looser rules on table service in parklets

Some may savor the notion of changing the law to allow table service at parklets, but whether City Hall has the appetite for it remains to be seen.

San Francisco’s parklet movement began in 2009. Today, 59 of them occupy former parking spaces, most of them installed by the owners of cafes and restaurants. However, The City’s parklet law states that they “are intended to be publicly accessible open spaces,” and private dining and table service are not permitted.

Some business owners would like to see that change.

At least one elected official is open to the idea. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told the San Francisco Examiner that he has had discussions about permitting table service at parklets, but has not considered actually drafting an amendment to the law at this point.

“We’re not that far along,” Mandelman said.

His staff previously convened a meeting in early 2019 to discuss the table service idea with Miriam Zouzounis, a small business commissioner, Joseph Sweiss, a founder of the Arab-American Democratic Club and Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards.

One business owner Mandelman has heard from who wants the law to change is Squat and Gobble owner Issa Sweidan, who has one of the public seating areas outside of his business on 16th Street in the Castro. The business just closed for renovations and Sweidan plans to reopen it as a Mexican restaurant, Bonita Taqueria and Rotisserie.

Sweidan said allowing table service would be a boon for small businesses like his at a time when many are struggling in The City, and it would address complaints he often hears from customers, especially tourists, who wonder why those who choose to sit in the parklet can’t have the staff bring them their food.

“They say, ‘Hey, come on. I don’t want to know anything about your politics, I’m here to enjoy myself, to spend my money in San Francisco. What a stupid law.’ We hear that all day long,” Sweidan said.

Mandelman said that rule against table service is “protecting public space from being privatized, but it also creates these weird arrangements where people have to step over to get their stuff.”

“People like these parklets, they like being able to have their food in these parklets and creating an artificial barrier where the staff at the restaurant next to the parklet are not allowed to bring food into the parklet seems kind of silly,” Mandelman said, repeating the argument he hears in favor of the idea. “That has some resonance for me.”

Still, Mandelman said “we have not gotten deep into” actually coming up with a proposal. “I am open to it,” he said.

Table service is allowed in other cities. Seattle, for example allows table service at parklets and calls them “streateries.”

Sweiss most recently suggested city officials rethink the table service prohibition at a Dec. 9 Small Business Commission meeting. He brought up the issue because he said his political club works closely with a lot of merchants.

Restaurants and cafes face “an awkward daily occurrence” when they have to explain to customers, many of them tourists visiting places like the Castro or Hayes Valley, that “you have to stand up and come grab your food or drink,” Sweiss said.

He noted that “these businesses incur costs, keep the space public and don’t inhibit its public use, and also maintain it and keep it clean.”

“I love the parklets,” Sweiss said. “I think they are great for commercial corridors and neighborhoods.”

Members of the Small Business Commission were receptive to the idea.

Stephen Adams, president of the Small Business Commission, actually referred to Sweidan’s business during the hearing, but stopped short of naming it.

“That is something in the Castro that is an issue. I don’t want to name the restaurant — at 16th street. They string the lights up and they were told not to serve and yet they do serve,” Adams said. “I don’t have a problem with that. I know the owners there really want to work with the city in trying to legalize that. Maybe that’s one thing this commission can do going forward is continuing that conversation, especially with a lot of the smaller restaurant owners.”

Adams later confirmed to the Examiner that he was referring to Sweidan’s business and Adams said he had observed instances of illegal table service himself.

However Sweidan denied they provided parklet table service.

“We comply with the law,” Sweidan told the Examiner.

He said that if his staff ever did provide table service, it might possibly have been for someone with a disability.

“My staff knows better than that, that we don’t do table service there,” Sweidan said. “I am not there all the time. I am running different businesses. My staff, they know better. If there is any evidence, I would like to see it.”

Sharky Laguana, a member of the Small Business Commission, also seemed receptive to the idea overall.

“I was thinking why can’t they bring food to them?” Laguana said at the meeting. “It’s essentially serving that purpose anyways. It just seems like sort of an arbitrary distinction. It is a great conversation to have.”

Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi told the Examiner that “city code does not currently allow table service at parklets, but we would honor any change in the law should The City revisit this issue.”

“However, since the beginning of the program, it has been our position that parklets are part of the open space network, providing public space that is open to everyone regardless of financial means, and that people should not feel a monetary transaction is necessary to enjoy public space,” she said.

Parklet disparities

The data presented at the hearing shows there are 59 parklets currently established in San Francisco, of which 48 were installed by restaurants or cafes. Others were installed by schools, museums, art galleries and grocers.

The costs to design and build a parklet to occupy two parking spaces is about $60,000, according to city planner María De Alva, who oversees the parklet program. While those apply must pay for the parklet themselves, she said that sometimes parklets are crowd funded or that a member of the Board of Supervisors may help with funding them through the budget’s “add-back” process. The Office of Workforce and Economic Development also has grants.

Those who seek to install a parklet must submit an application for $3,000. A parklet comes with an annual permit fee of $300.

Any business, organization or resident can apply. If approved, they are responsible for the upkeep, including cleaning and graffiti abatement. In addition to no table service, other bans include alcohol, smoking and business branding. They also must remain accessible to the public and have two signs that label it “Public Parklet.”

De Alva said that parklets are meant to serve as “a community asset and a neighborhood amenity.”

She said that they “support local businesses by enhancing the pedestrian environment, which can help make the street feel more safe and comfortable for people shopping, running errands, accessing services in their neighborhoods and supporting adjacent land uses.”

Laguana remarked upon the unequal distribution of the parklets.

“Clearly the distribution of parklets is very Mission-centric, with a handful of other neighborhoods,” Laguana said. “It would be nice in District 7, 11 and District 10 as well to see some more engagement with this program … to help these districts see more of this.”

The supervisorial district with the most parklets is District 9, with 12, followed by nine in District 8, nine in District 6 and seven in District 3.

Districts with the fewest parklets include District 11, which has none, and District 7, which has one.

By neighborhood, the Mission has the most, with 17, followed by five parklets in each of the following three neighborhoods: South of Market, Downtown/Civic Center, Outer Sunset.

De Alva told the commission that “access to more information about the program could help.”

“We haven’t had the resources in the last couple of years to do more outreach,” she added.

One of the main criteria for approval of a parklet is community support. De Alva also said some areas equate parklets with gentrification and oppose them.

“We know for sure that they don’t want it on Mission Street,” De Alva said. But there were six parklets approved for Valencia Street, one block over.

The City used to limit applications to a particular time period, but in 2018 began receiving applications year-round.

There are currently three pending applications for parklets near Fisherman’s Wharf, in Pacific Heights on Fillmore at Bush streets, and in North Beach on Columbus Avenue at Kearny Street.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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People sit and eat pizza in a parklet near Tony’s Pizza and The Original Slice House in North Beach on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A sign hangs in a parklet outside Squat and Gobble Cafe in the Castro on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The cost to design and build a parklet, such as this one outside Four Barrel Coffee in the Mission District, is around $60,000.

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