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San Francisco Will Allow Restaurants to Stay on the Sidewalks and Streets Long After the Pandemic Is Over

Legislation backed by Mayor London Breed will make the city’s Shared Spaces program permanent

Streetside dining in SF Chinatown
Legislation proposed by SF’s Mayor would allow dining on SF’s sidewalks and streets to continue after the pandemic ends
Patricia Chang

It seemed like a wild idea when it was first proposed in 2020: If COVID-19 was less likely to spread outdoors than in, one way to help restaurants remain in business would be to temporarily expand their outdoor footprints, allowing them to spill out into sidewalks, parking lots, and even the street. The pandemic-era fix — known as “Shared Spaces” — was so successful, Mayor London Breed announced Friday, that the city should make it a permanent program. To that end, she will propose legislation to keep the effort going after SF’s official state of emergency ends, saying, “I know this program will be an incredible asset for our city as we recover and move forward.”

If one casts one’s mind back to pre-pandemic times, one might recall that not so long ago, San Francisco’s bars, restaurants, and cafes had to pay a hefty permitting fee to place a few tables or chairs on the sidewalk outside its storefront: as much as $4,338 in 2018, industry leaders said in a 2019 meeting at SF’s City Hall. Doing things like adding seats in an adjacent parking lot or plaza was virtually unheard of — and you could forget about taking over part of the street.

That all changed by May 2020, when Breed — after hours of meetings with groups like local restaurant lobby the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) — agreed to launch an outdoor dining program that would make public areas fair game for the city’s restaurants, all of which were struggling to remain in business while restricted to takeout and delivery service only.

It wasn’t until mid-June that San Francisco again allowed restaurants to serve sit-down meals. Dining was only allowed outdoors, in the spaces restaurants built out to serve diners desperate for a non-takeout meal. Picnic tables proliferated along Valencia Street, and Shared Spaces platforms (colloquially referred to as “parklets”) started to appear in the parking lanes of many city streets. In a scary and strange time, the city could enjoy a bit of near-European cafe society, dining on five-star meals as Muni whizzed inches by.

Though the program hit a snag when COVID-19 cases spiked and outdoor dining was shuttered, it came roaring back in Late January of 2021, when restaurants again allowed sit-down, outdoor meals. According to Breed’s office, since then, over 2,100 Shared Spaces permits have been issued for in-street dining, sidewalk tables, and other outdoor setups.

San Francisco’s restaurant dining rooms reopened on March 3 with reduced capacity, but according to Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the GGRA, allowing restaurants to keep their outdoor operations open is crucial. “Most restaurants need to have every table filled to break even,” Thomas told Eater SF last month. “Social distancing indoors means fewer tables inside, so we need to keep the ones outside, too.”

Data from a survey of Shared Spaces participants shared by Breed’s office seems to back Thomas’s claim, with 94 percent percent of participants saying that they’ll continue to operate an outdoor “Shared Space even once allowed to operate indoors.”

It’s a program that has “revitalized our boulevards and neighborhoods,” Thomas tells Eater SF, and Sharky Laguana, the President of the San Francisco Small Business Commission, calls it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make San Francisco even more magical and full of wonder.”

According to Breed, the next stop on making the program permanent will be to introduce legislation (see below) at the next Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, March 16. In its final state, Breed’s office says, SF can expect a permanent program that “makes several programmatic adjustments to ensure equity and inclusion, promote arts, culture, and entertainment activities, and maintain public access” but will also include “clearer public engagement protocols, so neighboring businesses and residents have a say in how the streets and sidewalks are used in the long-term.”

In other words, parking. It’s one of San Francisco’s most contentious issues, and one that’s likely to be raised as Breed’s legislation winds its way through the Board of Supes. Even Thomas admits that “parking is always going to be an issue.” But she also thinks that “for the foreseeable future we can all make this work.”

And if we can’t make it work, and public opposition to tables on the sidewalk and streets quashes the program completely? The alternative, says Thomas, is disaster. Outdoor seating is the only way restaurants can “crawl out of those financial holes” they fell into during the pandemic. “Things are a long way from back to normal yet,” Thomas says, and “we know that without restaurants, cafes, bars and retail shops we will have a dead city.”

Shared Spaces Proposed Legislation

This legislation was developed in coordination with multiple City agencies and stakeholders, including Planning, SFMTA, Public Works, the Fire Department, the Police Department, the Entertainment Commission, the Mayor’s Office on Disability, the Economic Recovery Task Force, the Board of Supervisors, Commercial Business Districts, Merchant Associations, Small Business Commission, the Planning Commission, and public space and mobility advocates.

The legislation intends to achieve the following goals:

1. Simplify the City’s toolbox by consolidating the permit process, streamlining it for permittees and creating a single, one-stop permit portal.

2. Prioritize equity and inclusion by prioritizing City resources for neighborhoods most impacted by historical disparities with funding, materials and grants.

3. Phase the implementation of the program with economic conditions so that businesses have time to adapt to the new permit process.

4. Encourage arts, culture and entertainment activities by carrying forward the Just Add Music (JAM) permit and allow for arts and culture activities to be the primary use of the space, not just secondary.

5. Balance the needs of the curb by ensuring our Transit First and Vision Zero policies remain priorities, balance Shared Spaces occupancies with loading, short-term parking, micromobility needs, and other curbside functions; and encourage sharing of Shared Spaces amongst merchants on the same block.

6. Maintain public access by ensuring every Shared Space provides public access when not in commercial use and providing a seating opportunity during all hours, including business, operating hours.

7. Efficient Permit Review and Approvals with a clearly defined 30- day approvals timetable, aligning with Prop H requirements. This also allows for better design quality and therefore safety.

8. Clear Public Input Procedures will encourage collaboration between neighbors and merchants.

9. Coordinated Enforcement by a single agency with a ‘Single Bill of Health,’ which is easy for operators to understand and comply with.

The Shared Spaces Legislation will allow applicants to apply for a Shared Spaces permit on a sidewalk, in a curbside lane, roadway, private property, or pop-up entertainment through a single easy-to-use application portal. The permit use types are listed below.

Sidewalk Shared Spaces

1. Sidewalk Merchandising, displaying goods outside

2. Sidewalk Café Tables and Chairs, similar to the pre-existing sidewalk dining permit, but with more streamlined public notice requirements

Curbside Lane Shared Spaces (Parklets)

3. A Public Parklet, similar to the City’s pre-COVID parklets, a fixed structure providing full-time, publicly accessible space and no commercial activity.

4. A Movable Commercial Parklet, a space occupied by the operator using movable fixtures during limited business hours with a bench or other public seating facility. This option allows operators to use curb space that is needed for other curbside functions during the day, such as a Brunch restaurant that only operates until 1pm, after which the curb space is used for loading or short-term parking.

5. A Commercial Parklet, similar to existing Shared Spaces, a fixed structure where an operator uses the parklet for commercial activity during business hours with a bench or other public seating facility, and it is otherwise open to the public during non-commercial daytime hours.

Roadway Shared Spaces

6. Community Event, neighborhood-led, free and open to the neighborhood event. These events are not approved by staff. Instead, they will be approved through the existing ISCOTT process, which includes membership of key departments, including SFPD, SFFD, SFMTA, Public Works, and others.

Private Property Shared Spaces

7. In open lots, courtyards and rear yards between the hours of 9am and 10pm.

Entertainment, Arts & Culture

8. Live music and other performing arts will be easier to do on a recurring basis in all of the outdoor venues listed above.