Shared Spaces slowly making good on its promises

Initial rollout of program highlighted disparities among businesses, neighorhoods

The fee-free Shared Spaces program drastically downsized San Francisco’s painstaking permitting process, empowering business owners to self-certify, skip cumbersome bureaucratic steps and pursue projects that might ordinarily be nixed.

Less red tape should make it easier for all businesses to capitalize on the chance to reopen, or so the idea goes. But details of its rollout reveal Shared Spaces initially fell short in reaching corners of The City less likely to have the know-how or resources to quickly adapt to the new business as usual.

Emails obtained by the San Francisco Examiner between city officials from agencies responsible for approving permits show the early weeks of the program were spent resolving internal confusion, decrypting changing permit requirements, fielding inquiries from supervisors on behalf of constituents and struggling to address the relentless application logjam.

With more than 400 applications still awaiting approval on July 13, commercial corridors in the Marina, North Beach and parts of the Mission and Chinatown are now filled with outdoor diners and shoppers, while similar spaces in neighborhoods like Bayview, Portola and the Richmond remain largely void of revenue and revelry.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Jeffrey Tumlin tweeted out an even more recent map of approved permits on Monday that illustrated such gaps, a reality he owned.

“We still have work to do,” he said, listing extra assistance in low-income neighborhoods, creative solutions for fire access, faster hand-offs between departments, more field testing and adjustment as areas that needed work.

“Time is of the essence to help businesses survive while minimizing COVID spread,” Tumlin said.

Car-free streets

A three-block stretch of Valencia Street welcomed people to its car-free streets for the first time Thursday night, part of a pilot that invites restaurants and retail stores to move business outside four nights each week. Manny Yekutiel, a Valencia Corridor Merchants Association member who also serves on San Francisco’s Small Business Commission, described the strategy as a “bold solution to giving small businesses a fighting chance” and preserving diversity core to The City’s fabric.

However, it took two months to win approval, according to Yekutiel, and he expressed worry the distress of waiting, especially for the average individual without ready access to officials, would lead to a “whole wash of closures” if business owners made the emotional and financial decision to forego the permit and close instead.

Robin Abad of the Planning Commission, who recently became the Shared Spaces’ program’s public face, also recognized the disparity, noting The City first focused its attention on getting the program “up and running” and widely accessible.

He told the Small Business Commission at its July 13 meeting that delays could be attributed to a surge in interest when the program launched. However, he expressed confidence staff was moving through applications at a steadier rate.

Abad also remained optimistic the next phase — more focused on implementation — would demonstrate The City’s equity tactics at work.

Championed by Mayor London Breed and quarterbacked by the multiagency Economic Recovery Task Force, the Shared Spaces program launched in May. It allows business owners to transform nearby sidewalks or parking lanes into outdoor, socially-distanced oases.

It has been lauded by many as a proactive approach to reinvigorating the local small business community and bringing life back to neighborhoods in a safe, healthy manner. Of over 800 applications, 347 had been approved as of July 13, and Yekutiel said some owners told him the Valencia Street initiative might save their shops.

Diners enjoying outdoor patio space along a closed stretch of Valencia Street on Friday. July 24, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Diners enjoying outdoor patio space along a closed stretch of Valencia Street on Friday. July 24, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Good intentions

Katy Birnbaum, program director at urbanism nonprofit Livable Cities, believes Shared Spaces is well-intentioned, but said the initial rollout failed because the right stakeholders weren’t given a seat at the table. The misstep meant certain small businesses weren’t provided enough time to understand the requirements and take the appropriate steps to comply.

Many establishments Birnbaum assists with the permitting process are independent operations owned by people of color or women on The City’s Southeast side. Transitioning from a word-of-mouth, foot traffic and cash payment model to one reliant on social media and mobile ordering is a huge lift.

“Asking people to operate during this period is an enormous ask of a small business, but many owners have to do it, it’s their livelihood,” Birnbaum said. “Yes, there are a lot of people who want to do it but there are just as many who simply have to.”

Abad said the Emergency Task Force planned to explore ways it could enhance its outreach to lower-income and multilingual communities as well as consider providing technical assistance to neighborhoods most in need. Though there’s no cost for the permit, business owners still have to acquire their own materials to create parklets, blockades and outdoor seating areas, for example.

Part of those efforts include partnering with organizations such as Livable Cities that already have the trust of local residents and the institutional knowledge to effect real impact.

He also emphasized the program’s flexibility as proof The City wants lower barriers to entry.

Merchants can band together for the kind of blocks-long street closures seen on Chinatown’s Grant Avenue or Valencia Street — particularly advantageous for owners who don’t have the resources or existing customer base to go it alone — or they can tailor-make a proposal for a range of outdoor spaces near their property. They can even inquire about using public parks or other open spaces for certain activities on a limited basis.

Disparities persist

The disparity in Shared Space adoption doesn’t surprise Birnbaum.

“It’s the legacy of structural racism. There’s a different sense of entitlement about being able to take advantage of these programs or even take up space in the street,” she said, adding she now believes The City is closer to working with the appropriate parties.

Yekutiel, who owns his own restaurant on Valencia Street, said losing San Francisco’s small businesses, widely owned by members of historically marginalized communities, would tear at the crux of San Francisco’s identity.

“Businesses are dreams, they’re livelihoods, they’re food on the table,” he said. “For many, owning your own was a path to support yourself and live in the city you love. That was even hard to do here before the pandemic.”

Though Abad said specific metrics to evaluate the program’s equity were still being refined, he cited geographic distribution, amplifying immigrant-, persons of color- or female-owned businesses and outreach to areas where there’s yet to be wide adoption as priorities.

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