A server at Golden Lotus on Larkin Street delivers a bowl of pho to a customer at an outdoor table. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tenderloin merchants, residents come together over street closures

Parts of Larkin, Golden Gate to close four days a week to promote outdoor business, dining

Outdoor business, a lifeline for local businesses suffering from shelter-in-place restrictions, is now possible in the Tenderloin.

After a months-long effort by advocates, community groups and District Six Supervisor Matt Haney, parts of Larkin Street and Golden Gate Avenue will be closed to traffic for eight hours a day four days a week.

A coalition of community groups and non-profits including the Tenderloin Merchants Association, the Tenderloin Community Benefits District and Livable Cities have worked in close partnership with Haney’s office and other city agencies such as the Office of Economic and Workforce Development to secure a Shared Spaces permit, a COVID-19 response program that’s allowed businesses all over San Francisco to more quickly transition their operations outdoors without fees.

Rene Colorado, executive director of the merchants association, helped put things into motion nearly four months ago when he saw Shared Spaces taking off in North Beach, followed by other neighborhoods.

“I knew ultimately this was going to take up the rest of my year, and I was going to advocate for it until we got it,” he said.

Lers Ros Thai restaurant on Larkin Street is among the businesses now offering outdoor dining. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The street closures started Thursday, and just two days into the experiment, locals report more families spending time in the area, cleaner streets and overall optimism among merchants.

“It really hit home for us yesterday afternoon sitting at home with the windows open, when we realized that instead of the regular street noise we’re used to hearing, we’re hearing children playing and laughing,” said Drew McDaniel, who owns a condo on Larkin Street.

Pinyo Charoensuk, who owns Lapats Thai Noodle Bar on Larkin Street, said foot traffic has been fairly slow to start, but feels “great that this is happening.” He’s already noticed cleaner streets and believes the outdoor access will grow his business, which has been down about 50 percent since the pandemic started.

Seasoned Tenderloin advocates have long said the neighborhood is consistently sidelined from city programs offered to other parts of San Francisco. That exclusion was exacerbated by COVID-19 when other areas saw Shared Spaces and Slow Streets popping up as part of a citywide effort to close residential streets to cars to make room for socially distant recreation and alternative modes of travel. Those changes have come slowly, if at all, in the Tenderloin.

After less than a week of being able to serve diners outside, Tenderloin restaurants are experiencing a notable increase in business. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Officials have cited the Tenderloin’s density, multi-lane roadways, frequency of emergency response, old infrastructure and presence of open-air drug markets and unhoused individuals as reasons that citywide programs don’t work the same way here as they do in other neighborhoods.

“After decades of neglect, the Tenderloin is finally receiving the attention it deserves as the city has begun to reinvest in the neighborhood […], ” the coalition said in a joint statement.

McDaniel said he’s “always been confused” by the reflexive response that something wouldn’t work in the Tenderloin. He argues it’s exactly the kind of place that needs more access to open space, for example, so people can get outside safely.

“People say we can’t have nice things in the Tenderloin, but it’s been just one day and already I think people who have that perspective have been proven wrong,” he said, adding the “critical mass of legitimate activity” has dispelled the notion that the Tenderloin is home to exclusively seedy behavior.

Colorado agreed: “That’s the connotation of the Tenderloin, but the reason people love it so much is because that isn’t the truth, that’s not the full picture, and we know that.”

Given his extensive experience organizing in the Tenderloin, Colorado knew no undertaking would be successful without widespread support from the community and local businesses.

He went door-to-door, talked to tenants and merchants to run his “lofty goals” by them and solicit feedback well before he presented the full plan to The City in his permit application.

Sections of Larkin Street were closed to allow for outdoor dining in the Tenderloin on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The biggest concern Colorado encountered from business owners was how closing streets would affect to-go orders, the only source of revenue for months. The second was the need to re-route the 19-Polk, which ordinarily runs down Larkin.

Working with community partners and city agencies, merchants found manageable solutions to both worries: they created delivery driver parking in two alleys adjacent to the closures, and coordinated with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to have the bus run down Polk Street one block over.

“I’ve seen a lot of programs that aren’t beneficial implemented with high objections from business and residents, and I think that’s a big factor into whether a project will be successful or not,” Colorado said.

Colorado said the first permit application, which he described as a “wish list” of items, was held up in review, but city agencies quickly responded once he asked for the help of Livable Cities, known for its track record of successful street closures and deftness managing safety and emergency access hurdles.

Closing Larkin Street to car traffic has allowed Tenderloin eateries to operate outdoor and attract more customers. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“Once our revised proposal was workable, more agencies started hopping on board and we started having regular Zoom meetings,” he said of his close collaboration with the Fire Department, Police Department and SFMTA, among others, in pulling off Shared Spaces in the Tenderloin.

Larkin Street — between Eddy and Ellis streets and Ellis and O’Farrell streets — and Golden Gate Avenue between Larkin and Hyde streets will be open for outdoor business every Thursday to Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. through December.

“No one ever thought you could do this in the Tenderloin, but I know this neighborhood very intimately, and I immediately knew it would be successful here,” Colorado said.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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