Polarizing parklets: How SF thinks about public space could forever change

Rachel Herbert owns three cafes in San Francisco. All sit next to parks that draw heavy picnic crowds and provide...

Rachel Herbert owns three cafes in San Francisco. All sit next to parks that draw heavy picnic crowds and provide a respite of fresh air from some of The City’s more crowded neighborhoods.

Fifteen years ago, she endured an expensive, months-long petitioning process to get permission from The City to put outdoor seating on her patio at Duboce Park Cafe, a local eatery on Sanchez Street that doles out coffee, bagel sandwiches and baked goods and looks directly at its namesake charming green space.

Last summer, Herbert was able to construct three parklets without bureaucracy or steep fees. She says they were “lifelines” that helped keep her small businesses afloat.

Shared Spaces, the city-run pandemic program that allows businesses to convert areas such as parking spaces, sidewalks and even the streets into hubs for commercial activity, has widespread support from merchants such as Herbert who say it has saved their storefronts from closure.

Mayor London Breed has been an ardent supporter, as well.

She proposed legislation to make a permanent version of Shared Spaces in March.

At a press conference Tuesday, Breed said she would be willing to bring a ballot measure codifying the program to the voters as soon as this fall if the Board of Supervisors fails to act quickly.

Some supervisors, even those who support the program, caution it could forever change how San Francisco considers its public spaces and have called for more time to hammer out its long-term impact.

“We’ve been through a time where I think all of us were OK with a level of private activity on public space because of the desperate situation and effectively privatizing these public spaces, and most of us would agree there needs to be more time with that,” Supervisor Dean Preston said at the Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting on Monday, where the legislation was up for a hearing. “Why not have the longer term plan be a return to spaces that can be fully accessed by the public?”

Shared Spaces was rolled out in July 2020 to allow merchants to secure a fee-free permit to place tables, chairs or other commercial paraphernalia outdoors, allowing businesses to survive during pandemic restrictions on indoor gatherings.

Though the program offers a number of options for the kind of space a business owner can occupy and what can be built, the most visibile version has arguably been the parklet, which takes over parking spaces with constructed platforms often decked out with lights, music and heat lamps.

Of the 3,062 Shared Spaces permit applications submitted as of April 22, nearly half were for either parking lane use or parking lane, plus sidewalk use.

Complications poured in almost as fast as the customers, combated by a whack-a-mole approach from The City often by working with individual businesses on a case-by-case basis.

Among the various problems were concerns from business owners over the use of the parklets by non-customers or those experiencing homelessness, on one hand, and criticism from advocates, on the other, that most parklets were closed off overnight or inaccessible to people in need of a spot to sit temporarily during the day.

The proposed legislation proposes a tenuous middle ground between these two opposing camps.

Merchants who own a Shared Spaces commercial parklet must provide at least one seating option for all members of the public, regardless of whether they are patrons of the business, during the day, including hours of operation.

At night, no such access is required, and owners can limit the use of the parklet.

During the pandemic, some business owners have boarded up their spaces overnight. Others, like the team at the Knockout in the Mission, say they allow anyone to use their parklet, customer or not.

Public parklets have existed in San Francisco since 2010.

Sponsors, which include restaurant owners, museums, community groups and markets, among others, pay to create a wholly publicly accessible parklet free of any branding, table service or alcohol.

As of June 2020, there were 59 of these public parklets active across The City.

There’s the wooden seating area outside Devil’s Teeth Bakery on Noriega Avenue where people eat biscuit sandwiches or recoup after surfing and the green platform outside Arizmendi Bakery on Ninth Avenue where folks nosh on baked goods or sip beverages from The Bean down the street, for example.

All told, these parklets were costly before the pandemic. Sponsors would pay $791 for the permit, $650 for the removal of two parking meters, if needed, an annual renewal and more per additional parking spot, an annual renewal fee of $246 and anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for parklet construction, according to Department of Public Works materials.

This option remains as part of the suite of Shared Spaces options in the proposal for permanence at the cost of $1,000 for the first parking spot the first year, excluding the cost of construction, plus an annual renewal of $100.

Still, Preston said he believes the Shared Spaces program, as written, will essentially eliminate the public parklet because it doesn’t adequately incentivize it over private alternatives that allow business owners to have far more control over the space and reap the financial benefits more readily.

He says the only case he’s heard for this shift in the model is that it comes at the direction of the mayor and it’s preferred by the merchants, which, as a former small business owner himself, he understands.

“That’s not enough,” he said, calling for additional stakeholder input and a more compelling rationale.

Restricting who can and cannot use parklets is essential for businesses to conduct table service, to give assurances to merchants that the investment in these spaces, which can be tens of thousands of dollars, will be worthwhile and to comply with state law around the service of alcoholic beverages, according to Robin Abad, who oversees the Shared Spaces program.

Some critics argue that the de facto purchase of parking spots by businesses amounts to the privatization of public space.

Supporters of the legislation, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that stands to forfeit roughly $10 million in annual parking meter revenue as a result of the program, counter that these areas have long been used for anti-public purposes in the form of private car storage.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin called the use of parking spaces for outdoor business a “higher good” on Monday, but reiterated his relief that there are some wrinkles that still need ironing.

“None of these permits are going away anytime soon,” he said. “I think we have a lot of time to get this right.”

Current temporary Shared Spaces permits have already been extended through the end of the year.

Members of the Land Use and Transportation Committee applauded the work of city staff and voiced support for the program as a concept, but opted to wait before moving the legislation forward to the full board until more data could be collected on the existing parklets, further community engagement could be conducted and questions around access, equity and accessibility could be answered, among others.

“I do hope that eventually we can get to home base on this one,” said Supervisor Myrna Melgar. “But I do think we need more time.”

They unanimously voted to continue the legislation to June 7 for a second hearing at committee, a decision that seems to have struck a chord with Breed.

“The board has messed with the wrong mayor,” she said.


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