In a meeting Tuesday that dragged into the late afternoon, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pass an ordinance that would make the Shared Spaces program permanent. In the parlance of everyday eaters, that means parklets are here to stay, long after the pandemic is over. This legislation is a relief for restaurants and bars that have poured money into building these outdoor spaces in order to continue serving diners and drinkers during the pandemic and are now struggling to recover from debt. Parklets were originally a temporary emergency measure, but now they stand to change the landscape of SF forever.
“Shared Spaces brought back life and excitement to our neighborhoods during an incredibly challenging time. It has been wonderful to see friends and families enjoying their community and supporting their local businesses,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “By taking the necessary steps to make Shared Spaces permanent, we are providing another lifeline for local businesses to thrive and creating a clear path forward towards rebuilding our economy as San Francisco recovers from COVID-19.”
This legislation went through many hearings and amendments, and in the July 13 meeting the supervisors debated two final amendments, as proposed by Supervisor Ahsha Safai: First, whether the point of contact for small businesses should be San Francisco Planning or San Francisco Public Works. The Planning department has historically managed parklets, as they existed even before the pandemic; but Public Works is the agency that issues sidewalk and food truck permits, which might have streamlined the process for small business owners. Ultimately, the board of supervisors voted 7 to 4 in favor of the Planning department.
Second, whether restaurants and bars would be allowed to secure their parklets in off hours. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who voiced this issue in past hearings, spoke again on the privatization of public spaces, comparing parklets to beaches, and arguing that anyone should be free to sit down in a parklet and enjoy a cup of coffee. But, in practice, countless restaurant and bar owners have called into these hearings and shared complaints with their supervisors, saying they are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, they have spent tens of thousands of dollars on parklets, and are having to clean out urine, feces, and needles every morning. Supervisors also mentioned noise complaints from neighbors. By a slim margin, the board voted 6 to 5 in favor of allowing businesses to secure their shared spaces between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m.
It might not be a perfect compromise, but restaurants and bar owners are relieved. “We are thrilled that the Shared Spaces legislation ... has passed at the Board of Supervisors today ... ” said Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), in a statement. “Shared Spaces has been a lifeline this past year for restaurants, bars, cafes and retail businesses in San Francisco. Making this program permanent brings a continued bright light to all our neighborhoods, including downtown, Union Square and SOMA, and is a huge draw for visitors and residents alike.”
Given the many city departments involved and the complex set of issues at stake, this legislation took months to reach this final approval. The Shared Spaces program first launched as a temporary emergency measure in spring of 2020, and parklets proliferated over the summer. The Mayor proposed permanent legislation to the Board of Supervisors in spring of 2021. At the state level, Governor Gavin Newsom extended parklets, serving alcohol in parklets, and cocktails to go through the end of 2021, clearing the way.
But SF had to make its own determination at the local level, and despite the overwhelming popularity of parklets, how exactly to make them permanent turned into a contentious debate: On the one side, preserving space for seniors, people with disabilities, transit, and parking, and on the other, making room to continue supporting local restaurants and bars. Several supervisors remarked that this ordinance may not be perfect, but it is essential, and will continue to evolve. For more specific details on the future of the Shared Spaces program, check out the city’s website.