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SF Mayor Says Restaurants Can Take Over City Sidewalks, Parking Spots, and Streets

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Bars and restaurants can apply for free, expedited permits to take public space over for takeout and (eventually) dining

San Francisco Sanctioned Homeless Encampment
An announcement from San Francisco’s City Hall announces a plan to allow restaurants to take over streets, parking spaces, and sidewalks.
Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

The recent wave to allow bars and restaurants to take over city streets has hit San Francisco today, as SF Mayor London Breed has announced a program called “Shared Spaces” that will allow pick-up services in public spaces like sidewalks, streets, or parks and plazas now...and outdoor dining once sit-down meals are allowed in the city.

SF is just the latest spot to announce a program like this one: While restaurants in most Bay Area counties are allowed to remain open for takeout and delivery only, with sit-down dining room service still banned by the region’s shelter-in-place order, many cities have started to explore an expansion of outdoor dining for when sit-down service is allowed.

San Jose’s city council, for example, has approved Al Fresco San Jose, a program that would open public spaces for restaurant use. San Mateo’s City Council is hearing a similar plan at its meeting today, and Menlo Park and Mountain View are also looking at similar ideas. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín introduced a plan to fully close some city streets to make giant outdoor cafes earlier this month, with a vote scheduled for next week.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), San Francisco’s restaurant lobby, has been pushing for a similar outdoor dining program since May 8. That’s when they sent a proposal to city leaders, urging the oft-at-loggerheads SFMTA, Planning Commission, and Department of Public Works to work together to “come up with interim solutions” to support restaurants, including “opening up non-traditional spaces to allow restaurants to place their tables outdoors and still observe physical distancing rules and provide for ensuring safety for our employees and the public.”

Those “non-traditional spaces” would include “parking spaces in front of or on the side of their businesses, street space, including alleyways and commercial corridors” and, with owner approval, “private driveways near restaurants.” Ideally, public spaces like “Union Square, Yerba Buena Lane, and neighborhood plazas” would also be turned over for outdoor dining use, the GGRA said at the time.

It’s rare that a plan to eliminate parking or close down streets gets support from the city’s business community (or, for that matter, its residents, as any user of Nextdoor can attest). When the GGRA circulated its proposal earlier this month, Eater SF asked GGRA Executive Director Laurie Thomas what she’d say to folks — business owners or otherwise — who objected to a loss of parking or street space. “I’d say ‘too bad,’ she said. It’s that or have all our restaurants die.”

Businesses in one of the city’s most parking-challenged areas, North Beach, announced their support of a street dining plan earlier this month. In an email to Eater SF, Dan Macchiarini, the president of the North Beach Business Association, said that his group has officially urged the city to remove all parking on several blocks of Grant Avenue and Green Street during business hours. “People should hope for something like our iconic North Beach Fair,” Macchiarini said, “which turns the whole neighborhood into a pedestrian promenade, and where businesses set up booths in the streets.”

Changes to the use of San Francisco’s streets can’t be made without the buy-in of several city agencies, perhaps one of the reasons it’s taken so long for the city to announce a plan like those in the works elsewhere. That changed Tuesday, however, as Shared Spaces, the program announced Tuesday, “will allow individual businesses or local merchant associations to apply for a no-cost, expedited permit to share the sidewalk or parking lane for business purposes,” Breed’s office said via press release, with uses like “restaurant pick-up services, beverage sales, and general retail that are eligible to operate under the City’s Health Order” all covered by the permit.

Once restaurant dining rooms are reopened in SF, those businesses “could set up tables and chairs outdoors for dine-in service,” Breed’s announcement says.

On the surface, it seems like a less ambitious program than the ones that thus far have been planned in other cities, and it’s a far cry from the swaths of street closures proposed by the GGRA or the North Beach Business Association. But given how difficult it is to get San Francisco’s many agencies to agree on any sort of change to street use (see, for example, Curbed SF’s reporting on the San Francisco Fire Department’s opposition to bike lanes in some areas), it’s something, at least. And SF officials like District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who oversees the Castro, make it clear that the plan is to use the city’s sidewalks and parking spots for dining, not car storage. “Outdoor dining and shopping should be a centerpiece of our economic recovery this summer,” Mandelman says via press release.

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, whose District 1 encompasses the Richmond District, agrees. “We must do everything we can to support restauranteurs and small business owners whom have had to revamp their entire business operations due to the pandemic,” she says. “By increasing access to public spaces such as sidewalks and parklets, we can help businesses become more resilient.”

Thomas, who’s been fighting the fight for public space since the pandemic began, is relieved that the city has finally taken a step toward opening up outdoor dining. “With social distancing and the reduced number of customers who will be able to dine in,” Thomas says, “the ability to expand seating to outside will help our eating and drinking establishments be able to survive financially. We are so excited to help bring life back to our city and especially to our neighborhoods.”

Here’s the full announcement from Mayor London Breed’s office:

Mayor London N. Breed today announced the creation of the Shared Spaces Program to support neighborhoods by providing additional public space to support local business activities. The COVID-19 Economic Recovery Task Force developed the Shared Spaces Program, which will allow neighborhood businesses to share a portion of the public right-of-way, such as sidewalks, full or partial streets, or other nearby public spaces like parks and plazas for restaurant pick-up and other neighborhood retail activity, as allowed by San Francisco’s Public Health Order. Once restaurant dining is allowed under the Health Order, the public right-of-way could be used for outdoor restaurant seating.

“We know businesses in San Francisco have been hit hard, and since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been finding ways to support local retailers, restaurants, and other small businesses,” said Mayor Breed. “Thanks to the work of our Economic Recovery Task Force, this new program is a creative solution that will give our businesses more space to operate safely, and shift some of our street and sidewalk space to protect the economic and physical health of our entire community.”

The City remains focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, while also actively planning for San Francisco’s recovery. Part of San Francisco’s recovery includes finding ways to safely reopen parts of the economy, including allowing curbside pickup at retail stores, and identifying other creative solutions to support businesses and their employees. Given that social distancing requirements will likely continue to apply until there is a vaccine for the virus, the Shared Spaces Program will support businesses by expanding their ability to operate into outdoor public spaces, providing additional space for required distancing among employees and customers.

The program will allow individual businesses or local merchant associations to apply for a no-cost, expedited permit to share the sidewalk or parking lane for business purposes. Examples include restaurant pick-up services, beverage sales, and general retail that are eligible to operate under the City’s Health Order. Once permitted by the Health Order, restaurants could set up tables and chairs outdoors for dine-in service.

“It’s an incredibly difficult time for businesses and their employees in San Francisco, and the Economic Recovery Task Force has been hard at work identifying solutions to help businesses and people get back on their feet,” said Assessor Carmen Chu. “The Shared Spaces program is one way we’re helping to create flexibility for local businesses so that they can reopen and keep their employees and customers safe.”

The Economic Recovery Task Force is charged with guiding the City’s efforts to sustain and recover local businesses and employment, and mitigating the economic hardships of COVID-19 that are affecting the most vulnerable San Franciscans. The Task Force’s work is supporting San Francisco organizations and individuals and is laying the groundwork for economic recovery.

The program also includes the potential for broader repurposing of travel lanes or entire streets to support our neighborhood merchants and residents. Because these proposals would come with broader considerations such as impacts to Muni, these proposals will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Business owners who are interested in participating in the Shared Spaces Program will be asked to self-manage basic requirements around personal safety and accessibility. Examples include ensuring a safe path of travel and accessibility in compliance with the ADA. Final details of the initiative and permit process will be complete by mid-June and program updates will be available on SF.gov.

“Outdoor dining and shopping should be a centerpiece of our economic recovery this summer,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who serves on the Task Force. “The past few months have been awful for most San Francisco small businesses, their employees and the neighborhoods that love them. The Shared Spaces program is a bright spot emerging out of a dark time. The City needs to move quickly to make these opportunities available to small businesses, and I will continue to work with merchants and the community to make this experiment a success in District 8 commercial corridors in Glen Park, on Church and 24th Streets, in the Mission and the Castro.”

“Putting forward clear guidelines developed in tandem with health professionals and the small business and restaurant communities will be essential for this next phase of neighborhood recovery,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “I also intend to use the Board’s legislative authority to waive additional fees that present unnecessary barriers to entry for small businesses on the brink.”

“Our small business community was squeezed by layers of red tape even before the pandemic,” said Supervisor Catherine Stefani. “Now more than ever, we need creative ideas that will support our neighborhood businesses and allow them to reopen as safely as possible. By providing room to maintain physical distance, Shared Spaces will help San Francisco rebuild our local economy where help is needed most—our merchant corridors.”

“We must do everything we can to support restauranteurs and small business owners whom have had to revamp their entire business operations due to the pandemic,” said Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer. “By increasing access to public spaces such as sidewalks and parklets, we can help businesses become more resilient. Based on my office’s work with the Office of Small Business, merchants associations and other stakeholders, I am confident these measures will provide substantive relief to small businesses serving our neighborhoods at a time when it is most needed.”

“Our COVID-19 response challenges us to reimagine and repurpose how we use our streets to either accommodate curbside pickup or room for social distancing” said SFMTA Director of Transportation, Jeffrey Tumlin. “We are thrilled to support Shared Spaces, a broader repurposing of travel lanes or entire streets to support our small business community.”

“Making public space available to businesses is a key strategy that will help them reopen safely while mitigating some of the difficulty that is caused by diminished seating and capacity indoors,” said Rodney Fong, President and CEO San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “This is a great use of our sidewalks, streets and public spaces that will help businesses recover, will save jobs, and will create a positive environment for San Franciscans to enjoy and support their favorite restaurants and shops.”

“Shared Spaces will make our City more vibrant, and give small businesses a chance to rebuild, while helping everyone stay safe,” said Sharky Laguana, CEO and Founder of Bandago. “This is an exciting new chapter for San Francisco and I can’t wait to see it!”

“We want to thank Mayor Breed and the City for making this happen,” said Laurie Thomas, Executive Director, Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “With social distancing and the reduced number of customers who will be able to dine in, the ability to expand seating to outside will help our eating and drinking establishments be able to survive financially. We are so excited to help bring life back to our city and especially to our neighborhoods.”

“The San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations welcomes collaboration between the City and the city’s restaurants and dining establishments in streamlining and expediting permit options to creatively expand opportunities to assist all businesses in their quest for recovery while maintaining safe social distancing,” said Maryo Mogannam, President of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations.

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