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Patricia Chang

Welcome to the Parklet Era of San Francisco

These outdoor dining spaces will change the landscape of San Francisco — forever

“It was the single biggest factor in saving my business,” says Ben Bleiman, a partner in Tonic Nightlife Group and nightlife advocate, of the parklets that popped up during the pandemic. Bleiman, who owns the Mission District’s Teeth and Soda Popinski’s in Nob Hill and is the president of the SF Bar Owner Alliance, isn’t alone. Scores of restaurant and bar owners, whose businesses teetered on the precipice of ruin, echo his sentiments: “Without the option to have the parklets, we would have not survived financially,” says Laurie Thomas, owner of Rose’s Café and Terzo, and executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

And now, those parklets are permanent. Following a final vote on July 13, the Mayor officially signed the legislation and inked the deal Wednesday, July 28. The newfangled Shared Spaces parklets (or, in vulgar parlance, streeteries), born out of the pandemic, will become permanent fixtures to help bolster small businesses while pruning our city’s gross overabundance of cars and parking spots. What once proved a nearly impossible feat in SF — allowing small businesses to use public sidewalks and parking spots to serve patrons — became a reality, although it took months to reach this decision. Making parklets permanent devolved into a contentious local debate, but now these outdoor spaces are here to stay, and they’re going to change the landscape of San Francisco forever.

What to Know About the History of Parklets

Parklets aren’t anything new. Though they’ve become popular with SF diners over the last year, the advent of the restaurant parklet was hardly exclusive to pandemic times. They’ve been prevalent in Europe; just ask your most contrarian friend with “wanderlust” in their Instagram bio and you’ll get an earful. But it’s a different situation in California, and seeing how parklets came to fruition shows how much cars have encroached on our livelihoods — and lives.

Back in automobiles’ infancy, pedestrians and vehicles shared the road. (For proof of this pairing, look no further than the short film A trip down Market Street before the fire from 1906, capturing streetcars, horse-drawn buggies, cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, all moving together at a clipped yet chaotic pace.) Over the following decades, the needs of drivers would override the lives of pedestrians, literally pushing them to the sidelines.

But almost 100 years later, in small yet noble efforts, pedestrians began to push back. In San Diego in 2003, Environs Landscape Architecture built out Piazza Basilone, where passersby could sit, chat, and lunch. Then in San Francisco in 2005, three designers from Rebar, an art and design studio with activist leanings, transformed a parking space at First and Mission into a mini-park replete with sod, a tree, and seating. That experiment birthed Park(ing) Day, an annual holiday on the third Friday in September when people around the world take over parking spots and create parks available to the public.

How Restaurant Owners Have Reimagined Parklets

Leading up to the pandemic, San Francisco had already started its own parklet program, although following Rebar’s idea, those looked more like mini-public parks. It wasn’t until the pandemic, which ignited the Shared Spaces program, that restaurants and bars really had the opportunity to reimagine parklets as outdoor dining spaces. Restaurants ranging from two-star Michelin sparkler Saison in SoMa to neighborhood favorite New Dumpling King in the Outer Sunset, and bars like gay leather dive the Powerhouse, or Haight Street staple the Alembic, built parklets that were able to feed hungry patrons, serve tipsy regulars, and rejuvenate their revenue-starved businesses.

More than 2,400 applications have been submitted since the program went into effect, with an estimated 1,900 approved. The permit fee of $1,000 to $3,000 per parklet has been waived for two years. Best of all, segments of busy thoroughfares, like Valencia Street and Grant and West Portal avenues, shuttered to most vehicular traffic, releasing pedestrians from their cement prisons on the margins. Parklets popping up all over — in a city rife with byzantine permit processes seemingly hell-bent on quashing business efforts — was a cause for merriment and, at long last, a night out on the town.

But that doesn’t mean the vote was without debate.

Why Making Parklets Permanent Spurred Debate

The final decision to make parklets permanent was delayed for many months. The Shared Spaces program launched as a temporary measure in spring 2020; Mayor London Breed proposed to make it permanent in early 2021; but by June, it became a contentious debate with the Board of Supervisors, who held multiple hearings, considered hundreds of callers, and added many amendments, pushing the vote beyond the full reopening of SF and California.

As much as restaurants and bars need this injection of aid, and as popular as parklets are with diners, top concerns included accessibility issues for seniors and people with disabilities. “The city is great at coming up with solutions without asking all of its stakeholders, like senior citizens and people with disabilities, what would be best for all of us,” says Pi Ra, transit justice director at Senior and Disability Action, who also identifies as a disabled senior. “How it was originally legislated was aimed to fail with not a lot of consideration for accessibility or traffic issues.”

There were also structural issues that could have impeded patrons and passersby, and amendments dug into the details on how much parklets encroached on the sidewalk, and whether they were truly accessible. “Outdoor dining is not only more enjoyable for me, but also makes me feel safer as someone who’s high risk for death by COVID,” says Aubrie Lee, a Bay Area resident who has muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair. Lee points out that when parklets aren’t entirely accessible, they limit people. “Setups that block the sidewalk or otherwise require me to turn back and roll into the street make me at high risk for death by traffic. Other setups, like parklets built level with the sidewalk, are so much more accessible.”

It probably didn’t help that restaurants rushed to build. “Thirty-one years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, there’s no reason any structure should have these issues that maybe have been exacerbated by how quickly everything went up,” notes Autumn Elliott, an attorney for Disability Rights California. But finally, the city committed to getting it right. To align with ADA rules, the final Shared Spaces law now requires at least eight feet of free space on the sidewalk more than 12 feet wide, with smaller sidewalks requiring six feet of access. Businesses without enough sidewalk space can apply for a parking lane or street space.

By July, the debate had simmered down to two remaining issues. First, which department should manage parklets: Prior to the final vote, city leaders had to decide whether to appoint San Francisco Planning, the notoriously sluggish agency that manages parklets, or San Francisco Public Works, the embattled and embroiled agency that issues sidewalk and food truck permits, to manage the program. Supervisors voted 7 to 4 in favor of the lesser of two evils, the Planning Department.

The second issue, if restaurants and bars would be allowed to lock their parklets during off-hours, provoked further concerns — specifically, around the privatization of public space. While noting that the city is “giving up an extraordinary amount of public space” to help businesses, Supervisor Hillary Ronen told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I believe the public should have the most access to it as it possibly can.” Supervisor Aaron Peskin spoke repeatedly on the privatization of public spaces. Comparing parklets to beaches, he argued that denizens should be allowed to sit down and sip a coffee in a parklet whenever.

Restaurant and bar owners, however, cried out that they have spent tens of thousands of dollars on parklets, while accruing hundreds of thousands in debt due to the lockdown, and have had to deal with less-than-tidy conditions in their parklets come daybreak. “I’ve had to clean up massive, really impressive amounts of diarrhea in mine,” says Bleiman. Reaching a compromise, the supervisors voted 6 to 5 in favor of allowing businesses to lock their shared spaces between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. The legislation also includes the provision that some form of public seating be made available during hours of operation in exchange for the right to secure a parklet at night.

How Parklets are Changing San Francisco Forever

Whatever issues these Shared Spaces face over the next few years — including concerns about the further privatization of public space or stagnation in traffic, the latter of which could be easily remedied if San Francisco actually made public transportation a top priority — the presence of parklets on streets is a welcome respite from the vacancy signs darkening most of the city that knows how.

Parklets have also added more architectural flair to the urban landscape, with Shared Spaces coming in a myriad of designs and vibes. Mister Jiu’s neon green U-shaped outdoor seating, which was arguably the most thrilling parklet in the city, although not currently in use, pairs nicely with Waverly Alley’s Kodachrome colors. 21st Amendment in South Beach comes with a midcentury modern vibe via a sloped roof for rain and ephemera to slide off its steep silhouette. And you’ll find spaces decked out with chandeliers, like the ones at Rooh in South Beach, or with a staggered structure to accompany San Francisco’s famous hills, like the ones outside the Devil’s Acre in North Beach or Woods Cervecería across from Mission Dolores Park.

Considering the city’s tendency for cold weather, many diners will still prefer to sit indoors — as opposed to an inch from the 38 Geary bus during an atmospheric river event. Given construction costs and the labor shortage, parklets aren’t worth it for all restaurants. And many parklets, although built under strict guidelines for structural safety, are flimsy compared to what the permanent requirements demand, and might not be built to last. Still, some restaurant and bar owners have faith that parklets will see them through this latest surge in COVID cases, and even into the winter. “I don’t see any major problems,” says Bleiman. “Some [parklets] will be exposed to the elements because they don’t have roofs, so they would close during rainy times. And other people won’t want to pay for heat lamps, so they might get too cold. All surmountable problems.”

Mayor Breed signed the Shared Spaces legislation on July 28 making it official. Despite the famously soupy weather and precipitous hills of San Francisco, parklets are here to stay. The city is finally cultivating the outdoor dining scene it deserves, even if it looks a little different than expected and came to fruition out of the ashes of a crisis.

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