Support grows for making Shared Spaces permanent

Committee members say any proposal must grapple with equity, enforcement and accessibility

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee unanimously endorsed a resolution urging the creation of a permanent Shared Spaces program on Monday, in a strong show of support for small businesses who have benefited greatly from leveraging outdoor public space for dining and other commercial operations during the pandemic.

Introduced by Supervisor Matt Haney, the resolution calls on the Planning Department, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Planning Department and other relevant city agencies to develop a proposal to formalize Shared Spaces by June 30, 2021, the program’s current expiration date.

“I think it’s important that we make this statement together as a board,” Haney said of the resolution’s role in the context of more specific discussions around legislation.

Supporters see Shared Spaces as a lifeline to keeping San Francisco’s restaurants and small businesses afloat, and a crucial pathway to bolstering San Francisco’s economy and workforce.

According to the California Employment Development Department, San Francisco’s restaurant sector employed about 60,000 employees before the pandemic hit. Over the last year, it has lost nearly 31 percent of those jobs and seen dramatic losses of revenue.

Similarly, the arts, the entertainment and recreation sectors collectively employed roughly 14,000 people prior to the arrival of COVID-19, more than 30 percent of whom have since lost their jobs.

Shared Spaces has helped keep some businesses open. Since June 2020 when the program began, nearly 2,000 businesses have been able to open some kind of outdoor area for commercial operations, ranging from simple sidewalk seating or pop-up shops to road closures more resemblant of street fairs and kitted out platforms with entertainment and ambience.

Support for making elements of the program permanent is far-reaching.

Mayor London Breed and her Economic Recovery Task Force endorsed the idea in October 2020; the Small Business Commission has full-throatedly recommended the crafting of a permanent version; and, according to a survey of over 1,600 small business owners, over 80 percent of them said they’d like to be able to continue using their outdoor space beyond the pandemic.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of Shared Spaces potential,” said Sharky Laguana, president of the Small Business Commission, who called the program “the biggest opportunity in our lifetime to turn up the magic dial of San Francisco.”

That said, making Shared Spaces permanent is more complicated than simply codifying the existing program. Concerns have been raised around equity, accessibility, disruption to neighbors, enforcement and the long-term ramifications of blending the private and public sectors in the public right of way, and any legislation that would ultimately be crafted must grapple with those questions.

Relevant city departments are, in fact, currently working to craft legislation that will attempt to grapple with some of these very issues and more for the possible longer term duration of the program.

Laguana also emphasized this resolution was “a statement of intent and note of reassurance” to the small business community, and that community engagement and outreach would continue before a formal policy proposal was authored and presented to lawmakers.

The board has taken other steps to make it easier for San Francisco small businesses to survive this pandemic, including voting to waive permit and renewal fees for parklets and outdoor dining infrastructure in sidewalks or roadways until April 2022.

Earlier this month, Sen. Scott Wiener also proposed reform legislation to statewide liquor laws that would make it easier for restaurants, bars and music to be flexible in how and where they serve alcohol, a key part of the success of the Shared Spaces program in San Francisco that’s only been allowed as a function of the ongoing emergency order.

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