Businesses in the Bayview District and elsewhere hope that a program allowing them to expand into sidewalks, parking spaces, parks and plazas could help bring back business lost due to a city shelter-in-place order. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Restaurants hope ‘shared spaces’ bring customers back, but not everyone will benefit

Will a program allowing use of public space help The City’s struggling business corridors?

As San Francisco prepares to live with coronavirus for the long haul, a move to allow restaurants to expand into the sidewalk or street has been heralded as a much-needed tool to bring customers back while maintaining social distance.

In the coming weeks, businesses or merchants associations will be able to apply for a free permit to use sidewalk space, parking spots, and public parks or plazas for restaurant or retail use under the Shared Spaces program. While it gives businesses a fighting chance to bring back skittish customers, it remains to be seen which ones will be able to take advantage — and where that leaves the businesses who can’t.

How accessible the option is to businesses depends on how complicated the application and waiver is and how many departments end up involved, as well as insurance, according to Livable Cities Associate Director Katy Birnbaum. Restaurants in areas without high traffic or transit lines will likely receive the permit faster, but other logistics like the need for tables or outdoor heaters could be another financial barrier. The Office of Economic and Workforce Development was unable to respond by press time.

“The reality is the equity and the logistics are intrinsically tied together,” said Birnbaum, who works with neighborhoods like Western Addition, Excelsior and others for Sunday Streets. “You can create the most supportive framework possible and if you’re not getting out there to the people that need it and meeting them where they’re at, it’s still not going to come to fruition.”

Merchants in Bayview are eagerly anticipating the expansion, and groups like Economic Development on Third (EDoT) are working to get the word out. Gratta Wines and the Jazz Room are eyeing a partnership to share outdoor space in the back while April Spears is hoping to set up a parklet outside Cafe Envy.

However, building a parklet could be a financial hardship if the Shared Space program isn’t involved. Spears closed the cafe on Yosemite Avenue and has been feeding up to 1,500 people a week using her main restaurant, Auntie April’s on Third Street, through World Central Kitchen.

“It was a hard hit,” Spears said. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how this new normal’s going to work for restaurants. Even if we are allowed to be open, a lot of people still aren’t comfortable going out yet. Do they even have the resources to afford to eat out?”

Barbara Gratta of Gratta Wines, who converted her tasting room to a market, also feels that as long as people abide by the official guidelines, businesses can fully reopen faster. In the meantime, reopening doors and being on the sidewalk helps remind people that they are up and running.

“The sidewalk seating is actually really helpful for many businesses to be able to open their doors,” said Gratta, whose tasting room has space for 14 people. “People are just getting creative. We’re going to have to be constantly adjusting as we move forward.”

Takeout has been moving slowly for Spears, who hopes to pick up more of the 90 percent of business she lost due to shelter-in-place as she works to retool the menu and bring the cost of items down. But opening up Auntie April’s onto the sidewalk of Third Street, where the T-line runs and faster speeds are allowed, feels out of reach despite the need for space to create distance between her 10 tables.

Owners like Spears appreciate the efforts The City has made to ease burdens on businesses, like deferring registration fees and taxes, providing sick leave funds and grants and issuing a moratorium on commercial evictions. As of Thursday, small businesses can also apply for zero-interest loans through a $6.5 million fund, but Spears is reluctant to take on more loans.

Still, opening a parklet outside Cafe Envy would make a difference and is an addition Spears had eyed when opening the cafe a couple years ago. She had a hard time completing it, however, as a “one-woman show” who is also caring for an infant.

Parklets and sidewalk use are things that Spears, EDoT, Gratta, Birnbaum and Cinderella Bakery hope are here to stay.

“People love to be outside and it would allow us a safer way to have customers be able to eat in,” said Marika Fishman, a spokesperson for Cinderella Bakery in the Richmond District. “We see a lot of outdoor cafe seating in Europe and around the world and think it would be a great opportunity to introduce more of that in San Francisco. San Francisco has great food options and hopefully this would allow it to remain in this beautiful city.”

While many corridors are awaiting the expansion, Chinatown restaurants largely on hills won’t be seeing much benefit, save for some potential alleyway use like Waverly Place. Malcolm Yeung, executive director of Chinatown Community Development Center, fears that shutting down Stockton Street could cause more harm than good, given the transit that runs through it.

“Every neighborhood is unique,” said Yeung, who sits on the Economic Recovery Task Force. “Overall, for Chinatown there may be some limited benefits in certain corridors. I’m not hearing that it’s going to be broadly transformative for this community.”

The neighborhood’s restaurants and stores will need help with safety measures like hand sanitizer, masks and partitions like plexiglass. But as an area largely accessed by public transit, a recovery plan for Muni and the tourism industry will go farther than shared spaces, Yeung said.

Chinatown was hit hard not only by the lack of tourism but by the stigma surrounding coronavirus. Business dropped dramatically in the area even before the virus reached the United States.

“The rise in xenophobia and rise in Asian hate crimes are a clear indication that is far from withered away,” Yeung said. “What’s the macroeconomic strategy for re-inspiring tourists to come to San Francisco and to send a signal that it’s safe again? None of this is made easier by the fact that we’re facing a massive budget cliff.”

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