Chelsea Hung is a second-generation business owner in San Francisco’s Chinatown, running Washington Bakery and Restaurant, which her parents opened 25 years ago.
She invested “a few thousand dollars” into building an outdoor platform under Shared Spaces, a city-run, fee-free program created during the coronavirus pandemic to help businesses convert parking spaces, sidewalks and streets into outdoor space for commercial activity. Her restaurant’s location on hilly Washington Street made leveling out the platform a particularly difficult task that required more time and money than originally planned.
Only two months later, the spacious outdoor platform now sits empty and boarded up with wooden planks.
“We don’t want to be boarded up, but it’s for our safety,” Hung said. She recounted multiple stories of arriving at her restaurant in the morning to find trash, waste and even people’s belongings on the platform.
One day, Hung discovered nearly one dozen syringes and other paraphernalia. Without any background in how to safely handle this kind of material, she called 311, only to be told that it would take as many as three days for someone from the Department of Public Works to help with the cleanup.
“It shouldn’t be up to us to clean up someone’s syringes and waste when we don’t have the proper equipment to do so,” Hung said of the responsibility that’s fallen on business owners to keep their Shared Spaces platforms clean and unhazardous. “The reason we boarded up is that it becomes very unsanitary, and we need to keep everyone safe.”
San Francisco banned many activities, including outdoor dining, on Dec. 7 in response to a coronavirus case number surge. Almost immediately after the order went into effect, many streets were devoid of commercial activity and hundreds of Shared Spaces platforms citywide were left vacant.
But The City’s guidance for business owners with a Shared Spaces permit on how to handle the physical infrastructure created for outdoor dining or other commercial activity has left many merchants confused, conflicted and unprepared regarding how to proceed.
Businesses were required to prove their insurance would cover their outdoor dining areas, including platforms, and to take responsibility for what happens in those spaces, in order to be eligible for a Shared Spaces permit.
Putting the burden on businesses
With the new shelter-in-place mandate, owners are confused about how far they need to go to ensure the platforms remain clear of do-it-yourself outdoor diners, unhoused residents seeking shelter and rainy season respite and passers-by looking to drop their trash, for example, without risking potential legal trouble.
“There’s a lot of practical questions that have left a lot of our business owners in a legal limbo,” said Emily Abraham, public policy manager for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “We need City Hall to answer these practical questions sooner than later.”
Guidelines around Shared Spaces from The City in response to the stay-at-home order are sparse.
They establish that these permits will not be revoked, and once outdoor dining is again allowed, businesses that already have a permit can simply reopen. Additionally, The City directs restaurants to remove tables and chairs so as not to encourage outdoor dining, even after placing a takeout order.
But what to do with the hundreds of large, often ornate constructed platforms that have been erected in nearly every commercial corridor across The City since May?
Well, that’s on the permit holders themselves, even while outdoor dining remains suspended.
“Merchants are advised to take measures, in addition to those that they already take, to minimize potential misuse or damage to their Shared Spaces outside business hours while it is not being actively used,” a leaflet from The City says. “Merchants must make sure that the space is clean and free of safety hazards while it is not being used for commercial activities.”
In short: Business owners are on their own when it comes to keeping these platforms clean, safe and sanitary.
So, when someone like Hung calls for help from DPW, it’s actually not within the agency’s purview to provide her with support to remove waste or trash from the Shared Space platform.
Vas Kiniris, director of the Fillmore Merchants Association, says many businesses have reported increased rates of graffiti or evidence of overnight use since the most recent shelter-in-place order was enacted.
That, coupled with the city mandate to keep their space “clean and free of safety hazards,” has led many merchants, including Hung, to board up, barricade or close their platforms with tape rather than dabble with unclear liability concerns or damage to the pricey platforms they constructed.
No representative from the Shared Spaces program responded to requests for comment for this story.
Public or private space?
Critics of business owners who have decided to close off their areas say it targets unhoused and vulnerable residents, and too aggressively co-opts what was once public space.
At the crux of this emerging debate, then, is whether platforms and other Shared Spaces infrastructure should be considered private space, even when they can’t be used for commercial activity.
On Dec. 20, University of California, Berkeley professor Colette Auerswald and her daughter were walking down Valencia Street when they came across an unused dining platform at the Valencia Room, a club in the Mission that has temporarily shut down during the stay-at-home order.
When Auerswald tried to sit on one of the club’s outdoor benches, she found wood planks screwed to the seats with nails and screws jutting upward out of them.
“The world already feels so unsafe,” she said. “To walk down the street and to have what appears to be a public bench have nails coming out of them is just wrong,”
The public health and homelessness expert raised hell on Twitter, accusing the club owners of installing hostile architecture, design features intended to keep unhoused people from sitting or lying on them.
The club’s owners responded in a tweet, saying the boards and screws were intended to fasten seat cushions to the bench, but they had been turned upside down and exposed after recent vandalism.
Since closing, club management are “really indifferent about people using our outdoor space,” Valencia Room manager Peter Tam said in an email. “We are not there to clean or monitor the space and hope that we don’t get complaints from The City or neighbors if the space becomes filthy.”
Regardless of the Valencia Room’s intentions, Auerswald believes the shuttered dining platforms are denying residents access to what should be public spaces.
“As a citizen, I find that offensive,” Auerswald said. “It’s going to be boarded up, why isn’t that a parking space?”
San Francisco does, in fact, operate a program whereby the public domain is converted into a more appealing public space for anyone and everyone to use. It’s called the Parklet Program, and it’s distinct from the Shared Spaces initiative borne of the pandemic.
Parklets include amenities such as seating, landscaping, bicycle parking and art; they’re funded by groups of merchants or neighbors; they’re subject to an extensive review and approval processes; and they’re “publicly accessible and open to all” rather than controlled by a private business. The first was installed in 2010, and more than 60 have since followed.
Parklets vs. platforms
Though the term “parklet” has been colloquially used to describe the structures created by restaurants to facilitate outdoor dining, it’s a misnomer. Instead, these should be known as “platforms” under Shared Spaces.
In fact, the agreement signed by permittees includes a telling clause: “I understand that a Shared Spaces permit is temporary, and not equivalent to a Parklet permit.”
While both convert public space and are required to adhere to certain right of way rules, a Shared Spaces platform becomes the responsibility of the merchant that holds the permit, essentially operating it as an extension of its establishment.
By compelling restaurants to keep people out of their outdoor seating areas, The City has put the job of moving along homeless residents on restaurateurs, a symptom of policy failure rather than malicious business owners, said Keegan Medrano, policy director at the Coalition on Homelessness.
“I see it as them trying to maintain their businesses and stay afloat,” Medrano said of restaurant owners. “They’re anxious about their money, their finances. That motivates them to do something that affects unhoused folks.”
Many restaurant owners report feeling helpless and optionless given the lack of clarity from The City. They say that largely due to concerns about insurance they’re forced to clean up trash, remove graffiti and conduct enforcement without the help of trained professionals, or risk letting property go unmonitored and unkempt.
Kat Anderson owns the Word A Cafe, a Bayview eatery that shut down its dining platform earlier this month. Since then, she’s found everything from trash to urine inside it, she said.
Anderson removed the tables and chairs from the platform after outdoor dining was banned. But The City still hasn’t made it clear if she is responsible for removing people from it, she said.
“I don’t think The City should assume we would be policing those dining decks,” she said. “How are we supposed to get people out of there without calling the cops, who don’t always show up?”
Kiniris says the once-bustling Fillmore Street has been largely deserted since the shelter-in-place order came down in early December. He worries the longer the public health directive persists, the more difficult it will be to restore these platforms and other Shared Spaces infrastructure.
“The longer shelter-in-places continues, the higher the likelihood that Shared Spaces will get graffitied or people will make them into permanent sleeping sites,” he said.
Restaurant owners say the decision to barricade their platforms isn’t necessarily an easy one, but they don’t think they should be left to solve San Francisco’s longstanding housing crisis, its growing population of unhoused residents or the sky-high cost of living.
“Even though we are merchants and we have to run a business, we are residents of The City as well, and we want to do what’s right,” Kiniris said.