Cars and parklets don’t mix: SF searches for solutions after recent accidents

Andrew Fidelman got the call in the middle of the night from a friend delivering bad news: The parklet outside his wine bar had been demolished by a speeding car.

Around midnight June 18, the driver of a southbound car on Church Street crashed into the parklet’s front wall. Two people got out of the vehicle and abandoned it, according to Fidelman’s account pieced together from surveillance footage, eyewitness reports and preliminary information from police.

“It happened at a time when there were no customers, thank God,” he said. “It could have happened in a different time, and it’s only going to get more likely now at night, when people are drinking.”

The parklet outside Aquitaine Wine Bistro after the car crash. (Kevin N. Hume/SF Examiner)

The parklet outside Aquitaine Wine Bistro after the car crash. (Kevin N. Hume/SF Examiner)

Fidelman’s wine bar, Aquitaine, sits near the intersection of Church and Market Street, a junction rife with potential collisions thanks to an abundance of Muni lines, crosswalks and a notoriously hard-to-navigate intersection.

“For me, it would be a mistake to not see the warning sign,” he said. Fidelman won’t rebuild the parklet he spent thousands of dollars to construct in the first place.

More than 1,500 curbside parklets have popped up across The City during the pandemic. Many business owners have been adamant that this program has saved their shops, allowed them to hire more workers and made it possible to maintain their livelihood in San Francisco.

Over the last few months, just a “handful” of collisions have been reported, according to city officials, only one of which resulted in injuries to people enjoying the parklets.

Still, with traffic almost hitting pre-pandemic levels and many more people returning to the streets to enjoy a reopened San Francisco, some members of the public are asking questions about how to protect parklets and their patrons from potential collisions, and who should be responsible for doing so.

San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency board members first brought attention to this issue in May during a conversation that exposed the prickliness of possible solutions.

Director Amanda Eaken called the experience of sitting in certain parklets “actually a little terrifying” if cars whizz by at high velocities with little more than a few two-by-four wooden planks separating people from potentially dangerous vehicles.

“I would, for one, be very supportive of lowering speed limits on places where we want people to enjoy the public realm,” she said.

That’s a great idea, in theory. Except The City currently lacks the legal authority to set the majority of its own speed limits thanks to a wonky technocratic loophole in state law; however a statewide bill that would give municipalities more flexibility to do so is awaiting a full floor vote in the coming months.

Then, there’s the question of infrastructure that could visually cue drivers that they’re approaching one or multiple parklets, prompting them to slow down even when speed limits remain unchanged.

The proposed Shared Spaces legislation includes a slew of design and quality requirements. Everything from height restrictions and sidewalk access to limits on electrical infrastructure. It also includes “the obligation to maximize visibility for safety,” though how exactly to pull that off remains up to the merchant. The legislation says the list of possibilities “includes, but is not limited to,” reflective materials or soft hit posts.

It does not require lighting or sturdier barricades that some say might best protect the parklets from reckless drivers.

Robin Abad, Shared Spaces director, said many businesses have chosen to outfit their parklets with string bulbs or other decorative ware to make their seating areas more attractive for nighttime activity. This choice has the added safety benefit of visibility, but it remains fully optional.

“We tried to focus our design parameters around access and safety, and not to be too prescriptive about what types of amenities the parklets contain,” he told the SFMTA board on May 4.

After a car smashed into the parklet at The Napper Tandy in the Mission District, owners Marissa McGarr and her husband rebuilt the platform using bollards. The posts create an architectural perimeter around the platform beefs up protection to diners and the parklet itself.

A car crashed into the parklet outside the Napper Tandy Irish pub and restaurant at 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue in the Mission in April.<ins> (Photo by Reddit user spgulliver)</ins>
A car crashed into the parklet outside the Napper Tandy Irish pub and restaurant at 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue in the Mission in April. (Photo by Reddit user spgulliver)

A car crashed into the parklet outside the Napper Tandy Irish pub and restaurant at 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue in the Mission in April. (Photo by Reddit user spgulliver)
A car crashed into the parklet outside the Napper Tandy Irish pub and restaurant at 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue in the Mission in April. (Photo by Reddit user spgulliver)

McGarr is a huge supporter of the parklet program. She, like many other merchants, says it has directly created jobs and revenue.

“I’ve done what I can,” she said. “I know it’s going to be safe.”

The idea of making lighting — or, for that matter, any other safety element — mandatory highlights a key tension to this debate: whether the responsibility to protect parklets from motorists should fall on The City or on the business owners.

Though the McGarrs were able to foot the costs of building a more protected parklet, Fidelman said city-provided protection would be a more equitable and compelling solution to ensure safety.

Business owners are currently responsible for the full cost of their parklet as well as the price of any repairs or maintenance. The City does offer grant programs intended to help alleviate these costs for merchants who can’t put up the capital to build a parklet, but those funds have been notably difficult to access for some.

Additionally, as part of the application for a Shared Spaces permit, the merchant must show proof of insurance to cover the physical structure. Where liability falls should a patron be injured while using the parklet remains unclear to many restaurant owners, but McGarr said she believes her insurance would cover that kind of incident.

A car passes by a Shared Spaces parklet outside Horsefeather on Divisadero Street on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. The front section was recently repaired after a driver crashed into it in May. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A car passes by a Shared Spaces parklet outside Horsefeather on Divisadero Street on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. The front section was recently repaired after a driver crashed into it in May. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Some have floated the idea of timed street closures as a possible solution to enhance parklet safety.

The Shared Spaces legislation allows groups of merchants to apply for temporary street closures to create a pedestrian promenade that keeps people safe from cars and supports economic activity. Groups of vendors on Valencia Street and Grant Avenue took advantage of this idea last year to great success.

However, these street closures are not a tool the SFMTA is likely to consider for the express purpose of protecting parklet-rich commercial corridors

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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