San Francisco’s clampdown on parklets fuels turmoil

Restaurants and shopowners hit with hefty new fees and fines

When the pandemic hit, droves of people who found themselves stuck inside rushed out to get puppies.

That’s when Lynnet Spiegel knew she needed to figure out how to bring her pet store outdoors.

Fortunately, it’s also when San Francisco officials created Shared Spaces, a program that allowed for parking spots, sidewalks and other public spaces to be used for commercial activity — commonly known as parklets.

Spiegel was thrilled. She hired a contractor and spent $20,000 on a parklet outside Jeffrey’s Natural Pet Foods on Powell Street between Joe DiMaggio Park and Washington Square. There, she hosted puppy socials, training classes and other events for new dog owners in the neighborhood.

But things have become more tenuous for the pet store.

Nearly 18 months since she built her parklet, Spiegel recently received multiple citations threatening fines if she doesn’t make structural changes, including lowering its side walls, moving plant potters from the sidewalk and trimming the roof.

The parklet — and maybe her business — could be at risk.

“I am battling Amazon and Chewy and trying to keep a brick-and-mortar open,” Spiegel said. “The only way for me to stay alive is for me to have some customer incentives other than just buying food.”

Spiegel’s not alone. As the parklet program transitions into a permanent fixture on San Francisco streets, tensions are bubbling between city agencies that need to impose some semblance of order to what’s been a largely ad-hoc system and merchants who are still only beginning to recover from the pandemic.

“As we move into a permanent program, the quickly-built structures need to adjust for long-term use,” said Robin Abad, who oversees the parklet initiative. “We have turned a crisis response into an enduring opportunity to reimagine the use of our streets to benefit the people who live, work and visit here.”

The Examiner spoke to business owners in North Beach and Chinatown, two neighborhoods where parklets have been essential to the survival of commercial corridors, about the uncertain future of these outdoor structures.

When parklets first hit the streets last summer, they were a boon for merchants. Many said it was the only way they were able to survive the doldrums of shelter-in-place. At least 1,800 applications were approved with over 1,000 of those involving the parking lane, according to the Shared Spaces website.

It was also a total free-for-all.

Parklets ran the gamut in design and durability. Haphazard flooring and ramshackle roofs were one end of the spectrum. On the other were sprawling structures decked out with lighting, speakers and decorations.

Initially, there were bare-bones guidelines, but enforcement was lackluster. Some community members raised concerns regarding compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, transit interference and first responder access.

Legislation to make the new use of sidewalks, parking spaces and other parts of the public realm permanent was introduced by Mayor London Breed in March and subsequently passed by the Board of Supervisors. It intends to allow businesses to benefit from outdoor dining beyond the pandemic and to codify more stringent rules and regulations for parklets.

According to Abad, passage of the legislation jumpstarted The City’s ability to enforce compliance in some areas related to safety now rather than waiting for the permanent version of the program to go into full effect next year.

Notices of violations and the threat of punitive fines are currently only being issued for parklets that need urgent fixes to restore emergency access, particularly potential obstructions to the Fire Department to reach the building and compliance with ADA rules, he said.

All other violations are supposed to be waived until July 2022.

So when Chelsea Hung received a violation notice giving her 14 days to make structural changes to her parklet or risk fines up to $500 per day, she was floored because she believed she was in compliance with all fire and accessibility concerns.

Hung spent over $5,000 building the parklet outside Washington Bakery and Restaurant, the business near Portsmouth Square that her family has owned and operated for 25 years. She’s made multiple modifications to the parklet since it was first erected to comply with changing city guidelines.

Faced with this latest violation — one that Hung doesn’t fully understand because she says it’s written in technocratic jargon referring to city codes — she’s wondering if it’d be easier to tear the parklet down instead.

Chelsa Hung, whose family has owned Washington Bakery and Restaurant in Chinatown for decades, said she was surprised to receive a violation notice from The City about the eatery’s parklet. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Chelsa Hung, whose family has owned Washington Bakery and Restaurant in Chinatown for decades, said she was surprised to receive a violation notice from The City about the eatery’s parklet. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“We don’t know if regulations are going to keep changing,” she said. “We’re in this dilemma about whether to keep investing in outdoor dining.”

Spiegel could face a similar dilemma. Her citations mandates she reduce the size of her parklet slightly, a move she says would force her to cut the size of her puppy training classes.

“It wouldn’t be feasible,” she said. “It’s cost-prohibitive.”

Merchants agreed that addressing fire and accessibility issues are key to the safety of San Francisco streets and residents, but they expressed consternation at how many of their violations fall into those buckets, especially after a year and a half of operation without issue.

“I think the confusion was that it was given piecemeal, and it was given after the fact,” said Hanna Suleiman, who owns Caffe Greco on Columbus Avenue. “Nobody came to say ‘you could do this and you could not do that.’ They gave the chance for people to do whatever they wanted and now they’re coming back after over a year.”

Caffe Greco owner Hanna Suleiman built the parklet outside his North Beach restaurant before the pandemic hit. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Caffe Greco owner Hanna Suleiman built the parklet outside his North Beach restaurant before the pandemic hit. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Suleiman’s parklet predates the pandemic. It was built in 2010 as one of The City’s first publicly accessible parklets with rigorous considerations for design and construction quality. During the pandemic, he expanded it to take over four motorcycle zone spaces and added a roof.

Now, he says he’s being asked to “comply with guidelines that I was not aware of” within 10 days or risk fines. He spent about $9,000 on the parklet during the throes of COVID-19, and he believes he’d have to spend up to another $5,000 to bring it up to the new code.

“I think there should be guidelines, no question, but they should be reasonable guidelines,” Suleiman said. “The notion was that this was built in order to help small businesses and now what it’s going to do is destroy small businesses.”

Multiple merchants told The Examiner they had been unable to decipher something as basic as the notices themselves and received little support from The City in doing so. They said different citations came from multiple agencies with no clear point of contact, and when they would reach out to numerous email addresses, they wouldn’t hear back for weeks or they bounced between people.

Some of those who want to comply but need more time to do so because of an ongoing supply shortage, rising costs of construction and staffing struggles have not heard back about possible extensions.

“It’s a total communication breakdown, with businesses being told conflicting things week after week and The City failing to coordinate a unified, helpful approach to compliance,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes North Beach and Chinatown.

Officials acknowledge the transition has been confusing.

Abad told The Examiner that starting this month, departments will issue notices to merchants in a single packet with a cover sheet in order to help business owners “understand what they need to fix and make a plan for doing so.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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