People smoke near the Columbus Café and Sotto Mare Shared Spaces outdoor dining platforms in North Beach on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Mayor Breed unveils proposal to make Shared Spaces permanent

Legislation will attempt to remedy concerns about equity, inclusivity and enforcement

Sidewalk dining, outdoor parklets and even entire road closures could become permanent fixtures on San Francisco streets.

Mayor London Breed announced legislation Friday that would pave a path to permanence for Shared Spaces, the program born of the pandemic that allows small businesses to apply for a fee-free, expedited permit to use elements of the public realm such as sidewalks, parking spots and curbside for outdoor operations.

“Shared Spaces have brought people so much joy and opportunity to safely enjoy their neighborhood and support local businesses during an otherwise incredibly challenging time,” Breed said in a statement. “They have also been a lifeline for business owners, providing restaurants, cafes and stores with the space they need to offer outdoor services and keep their businesses going.”

The program has been popular among many business owners.

As of March 1, 2,117 curbside and sidewalk permits had been approved. Based on a survey of over 100 restaurants from July to September 2020, the program generated an additional $82,000 taxable sales per business as compared to other restaurants without an active permit.

Created as a temporary emergency response program set to expire on June 30, 2021, Shared Spaces would transition to a permit permanently offered by The City under the proposed legislation. Businesses would be able to apply for permits on a sidewalk, in a curbside lane, roadway, private property, or pop-up entertainment through a single application portal.

City agencies will be required to respond to the application within 30 days, a stipulation of Proposition H, passed by voters in November to streamline the process of getting a new business off the ground. It would also waive all annual fees — the cost of which have not been announced — until June 2022.

“Shared Spaces is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make San Francisco even more magical and full of wonder,” said Sharky Laguana, president of the San Francisco Small Business Commission, who also advocated for Prop. H. “Making this program permanent will help our small businesses recover from the global pandemic, and offers incredible potential for artistic and cultural expression.”

The rise of outdoor dining is a phenomenon new to San Francisco, a city that, while known for its pleasant, if cool, weather, was also infamous before the pandemic for its laborious permitting processes and slow pace of change.

An Original Joe’s employee sets up a heater for outdoor dining on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

An Original Joe’s employee sets up a heater for outdoor dining on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

But Shared Spaces seems to have helped small business owners survive. Roughly 84 percent of operators have said the program enabled them to reopen during the public health emergency; 80 percent said it allowed them to avoid permanent closure; and 94 percent said they would keep their outdoor dining set-up even once indoor operations resumed.

Supporters say opening the curb, sidewalk and street to outdoor dining and other business operations hasn’t just helped merchants, but has also created a new way to create community, reinvigorate neighborhood commercial corridors and benefit the collective psychological and emotional wellbeing of San Franciscans during the otherwise-isolating pandemic.

“This program also serves to activate our neighborhoods and bring back life to our city, and will be a strong tourism draw,” Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said in a statement.

While the popular narrative around Shared Spaces has been largely positive over its ninemonth lifespan, it has also caused some consternation among those who wanted to see more enforcement and and regulation around the platforms and street closures seemingly popping up overnight.

Those concerns are not trivial, especially if the program is going to be around for the long run.

They include enforcement of safety guidelines that seek to protect emergency access; maintenance of accessible passageways for individuals with limited mobility; the loss of parking spaces — and the sizable revenue that creates for The City’s beleaguered transit agency — coupled with the loss of community input; the lack of equity in which business owners are able take advantage of the program; and whether these spaces are, in fact, truly “shared” if they represent part of the public realm being turned over to private businesses.

Breed’s proposed legislation seeks to remedy some of these issues.

It stipulates every Shared Spaces must provide public access when not in commercial use and include a seating opportunity during all hours, including hours of operation; prioritizes city resources for neighborhoods most impacted by historical disparities to help business owners launch an outdoor operation; and institutes increased public notice requirements, the details of which have not been released.

Not to be forgotten is the question of who is responsible for overseeing this program, which, to date, has been led by a patchwork of city agencies including the Planning Department, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Department of Public Works, leading to a complicated and inconsistent process for even the most well-intentioned business owners confused about how to comply with health and safety guidelines.

Kevin Lynch drinks a beer in the Columbus Cafe outdoor parklet in North Beach on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Kevin Lynch drinks a beer in the Columbus Cafe outdoor parklet in North Beach on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The legislation seems to have a plan for that, at least one on paper: it creates a “Single Bill of Health” that’s said to clearly spell out safety and health guidelines as well as give enforcement authority over to one agency.

Finally, many have mentioned that while the use of the curb for outdoor commercial activity is a boon for business during the pandemic, it could hinder transit, Vision Zero, infrastructure and other city priorities once recovery begins and more people begin traveling outside their homes and neighborhoods.

With this proposal, The City would incentivize movable parklets over permanent alternatives and promote the sharing of outdoor space among merchants on a single block in order to “gradually start to rebalance the curb.”

How it plans to do that has not been disclosed.

The legislation will be introduced at the upcoming Board of Supervisors meeting on March 16. The board has already passed a resolution in support of creating a permanent version of the Shared Spaces initiative, but it has made clear its desire to see specific provisions to address long-term concerns around equity, accessibility and enforcement.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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