S.F.'s parklets program learns from failure, moves ahead

On Haight Street, two new parking spaces where a parklet was recently removed highlight the growing pains of a popular open-space program and what The City can learn from the failure.

In July, a parklet outside of Martin Macks bar in the Upper Haight was the first to be removed after nearly a year of controversy, and Planning Department officials running the program have learned from this incident and others that have cropped up around The City.

San Francisco pioneered parklets, starting in 2009 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom asked the Department of Public Works, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Planning Department to come up with a “temporary urbanism program.” The concept the agencies came up with allows businesses, nonprofits and property owners to apply for permits to convert adjacent on-street parking into open spaces that are open and accessible, though also removable.

Starting in 2010, a few businesses applied for the open spaces, but since there were no guidelines for parklets, it took months between rounds of applications for city planning officials to smooth out the kinks and answer lingering questions, including how the spaces should be designed.

Among the opening salvo of applications was that of Martin Macks, which in 2011 constructed a parklet with brick columns, overhead latticework, and removable tables and chairs that some critics said became a haven for homelessness and illegal activity.

The removal of Martin Macks' parklet and problems around the installation of others provided lessons for the program.

As the number of applications increased — up to 55 this year — so did the oversight and guidelines, enough so that the design of the now-removed parklet in the Upper Haight would not be approved today, said Paul Chasan, parklet project manager with the Planning Department.

Applicants now are asked to describe what the parklet will include before design drawings are submitted. Parklets must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; abide by certain dimensions; and, if sponsored by a restaurant, avoid having furniture similar to that of the eatery. The guidelines are compiled in a comprehensive packet released late last year by the Planning Department.

“We were kind of working it out as we go,” Chasan said. “This is the first attempt to codify our policies.”

The nearly 40 parklets that have popped up throughout The City include designs that have evolved from standing bars and minimal seating in 2010 to creative and intricate designs that include seating, planter boxes and bike parking. The point is to create spaces for people to linger, enjoy themselves and support local businesses, Chasan said.

“There are different sorts of scales and types,” Chasan said. “Some fit in one parking space, some fit in two or three, and there is even blocklong intervention on Powell.”

And despite stricter guidelines, more parklets are in the works, with an additional 15 permits going through the approval process, according to Chasan. Once the latest round of applicants is approved and the construction begins, there will be at least one parklet in every district in San Francisco.

But not all are happy to see them appear. While there has not been a citywide rally against the installation of parklets, in certain areas business owners and neighbors are fighting the on-street spaces.

In the Haight, complaints began coming into the Department of Public Works and the Planning Department after the Martin Macks parklet fell into disarray during a change in ownership of the business.

In the Outer Sunset, area businesses unsuccessfully challenged a co-op grocery store's permit to install a parklet, arguing that adding the third one in close proximity along the Judah Street corridor would prevent customers from parking and shopping nearby.

Proponents of the open space have stood firm in support despite complaints, including San Francisco Beautiful, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving The City. The nonprofit hopes to extend the small pieces of open space to high-need areas where parks are hard to come by, such as the Tenderloin.

“They're fast and cool and prioritize the pedestrian experience,” said Kearstin Krehbiel, executive director of SF Beautiful. “They're dynamic and multiuse spaces that support community stewardship. We're happy to partner with [departments] to see how we can improve these spaces and equitably distribute them throughout The City.”

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