Delayed parklet reforms leave seniors and disabled in the lurch

Breed’s proposed deadline extension came as a ‘total shock’

Mayor London Breed’s proposal to delay the enforcement of rules governing parklets has sparked concern among senior and disability rights advocates.

They say Breed’s plan, which would push back the parklet compliance deadline to March 2023 from June 2022 — poses serious risks to people with limited mobility, whose interests are often ignored.

“It is endlessly frustrating, maddening and heartbreaking that it feels like a lot of city leaders are willing to do a lot to make businesses happy,” said Jessica Lehman, Executive Director of Senior and Disability Action. “People (with disabilities) feel like they are considered expendable, and this is just another sign of that.”

For people with limited mobility, parklets have added peril to even the most basic daily movement. Some obstruct crosswalks, reduce the visibility of pedestrians for drivers or make a Muni stop hard to reach. Electrical wires might run across sidewalks, and dish carts, heat lamps or other dining infrastructure often overflow into the right-of-way. On particularly narrow corridors, some people find it easier to go around the structure — even into the street — rather than walk on the sidewalks.

Moving back the deadline for parklets to adhere to guidelines for anything other than the most severe violations will only prolong the feelings of danger, fear and lack of independence that so many seniors and people with disabilities already face when navigating San Francisco streets, according to advocates.

“We’re not trying to oppose (parklets) completely,” Lehman said. “Our community is also eating at restaurants and passing through the streets, so let’s talk about what we do to make sure public space is public and works for everyone.”

Under the proposed legislation, businesses would have until March 2023 to make sure their parklets follow the rules laid out in the Shared Spaces legislation, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year to make the program permanent. The original deadline was June 2022.

Businesses put up their parklets during the throes of the pandemic when there were few rules and even less enforcement. The newly codified regulations are intended to provide more consistency to these structures as well as ensure safety and accessibility.

Breed’s announcement came on the heels of a frenzy of local media coverage, including a story by The Examiner, about businesses considering tearing down the parklets they spent thousands of dollars to build rather than deal with changing guidelines and the threat of mounting fees.

“We’re attempting to strike a balance as we transition Shared Spaces from an emergency response program to one that is permanent,” said mayoral spokesperson Andy Lynch. “A major part of that requires that parklets comply with regulations regarding access and life safety, and The City is working to ensure that happens.”

One exception to the deadline is those parklets that include “egregious” accessibility issues. The City will work “collaboratively, not punitively” to help businesses with their structures, and fines would only be levied if a merchant continually ignores outreach and warnings, Lynch said.

Walking through the narrow corridors of a parklet is easy for some, but for seniors or those with disabilities it can be a challenge. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Walking through the narrow corridors of a parklet is easy for some, but for seniors or those with disabilities it can be a challenge. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

It remains unclear what constitutes an “egregious” violation of the legislation’s accessibility rules, some of which go beyond federal requirements mandated in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who championed accessibility amendments in the final legislation, said she understood the need to support small businesses as they continue to struggle. But she hopes to see more clarity from “technical experts” on how The City can guarantee public space remains open to those with mobility issues without unnecessarily punishing businesses.

“I think the issue is that we don’t quite understand what that means,” she said.

One idea? Ask people with experience.

“The disability community should be consulted about everything that concerns the physical environment,” Melgar said. “They are the ones who have the hardest time getting around.”

Advocacy groups such as Senior and Disability Action were included in the extensive discussions ahead of the vote earlier this year that made parklets permanent. Lehman said she felt like every interest had to sacrifice a little bit in order to land at the end result, which she viewed as a “pretty good” compromise.

By contrast, she said Breed’s proposed deadline extension came as a “total shock.”

When asked directly whether the Mayor’s Office had reached out to senior and disability advocacy groups ahead of the announcement, Lynch said “there are many stakeholders involved in this process, and I can’t speak to every conversation that has taken place.”

Though the pandemic has forced the need for flexibility and lenience, supporters for improved accessibility aspire to a parklet program that includes real enforcement for businesses that fail to follow the rules, protects the freedom of movement for those with limited mobility. They also hope it creates spaces that every kind of San Francisco resident can enjoy.

“It is unbelievable that 31 years after the ADA, there is not a societal consensus that disabled people and older people are important enough members of our community for access to be a right and a necessity,” Lehman said.

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