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San Francisco’s Outdoor Dining Scene Could Change Drastically Soon. Here’s What to Know.

As new rules around restaurant parklets kick in, business owners must make some expensive decisions

The clean white, wooden parklets at Wildseed Patricia Chang

Restaurants have gone through the wringer during the pandemic, but one of the brighter spots has been the flourishing of new outdoor spaces including parklets, those al fresco dining and drinking spaces that started as an emergency measure but are now allowed to exist permanently thanks to the Shared Spaces program. Although constructing them was an expensive endeavor for many restaurant and bar owners to undertake — some parklets cost upwards of $20,000 to construct — the outdoor spaces allowed many residents to come back to dining and drinking in safer settings. Sanctioned by the city as a “lifeline” for business during the pandemic (though that wasn’t always the case), a city ordinance made the structures a permanent part of the cityscape in July 2021.

But with the permanent status granted to parklets come a slew of new rules governing the structures. In general, the regulations aim to improve safety and accessibility for groups including seniors and those with disabilities, but in many cases could require updates to already-existing structures. Restaurant and bar owners now face upcoming deadlines and decisions on what to do with these outdoor dining spaces.

Here’s what San Franciscans need to know about the future of outdoor dining in the city.

Business owners need to decide if they want to keep their parklets

There are a number of new rules parklets need to adhere to in order to make sure outdoor dining spaces are up to American Disability Act standards and fire codes, for instance. For some businesses, the changes required could cost a lot of money. Business owners have until November 1 to make that call on whether or not to undertake the work, as applications to operate parklets under the new, “legislated” phase of outdoor dining are due by that day.

Business owners will need to decide if they can meet the upgraded standards and address needs such as emergency access for the fire department. If an owner wants to move forward with updates, then they’ll need to get an application into the city’s Shared Spaces program with updated designs for their parklet, after which the team will take 30 days to get back to restaurants about their plans.

April 1, 2023 is when the new Shared Spaces program officially begins and permit fees kick in, so that’s the deadline for making any upgrades. But even with the deadline looming in the spring of next year, business owners should wait to begin the process of changing their parklets until they’ve heard back from the Shared Spaces team. “Typically, there’s a lot of case management and back and forth on these site plans, and maybe the owner has misinterpreted a design guideline,” Annie Yalon, deputy program manager of the Shared Spaces Program, says. “We just want to make sure that we’re giving our team the opportunity to really provide that individual level of support.”

Required upgrades will transition parklets order into the future

Parkets constructed during the pandemic were allowed to be built without a lot of oversight or guidance; when they became permanent, some critics raised concerns about access for those with disabilities as well as issues around the privatization of public space, as parklet owners sought to lock up their parklets after closing time. The new rules address some of those issues, such as ensuring that some form of public seating is offered during business hours.

But the new rules also mean every business owner with a parklet will have to apply for a new permit. And even if business owners don’t want to go through a new permitting process, they may still have to make some changes in the near future — as in, before the new program technically kicks in on April 1, 2023. That’s because there may be complaints or requests to address urgent safety issues, which will either need to be immediately fixed or the parklet will need to be removed.

Otherwise, existing parklets can be kept around until March.

Restaurant owners who don’t get the new permit could face fines

There will be some opportunities to make fixes if a parklet is in any sort of violation of the guidelines, and Monica Munowitch, the deputy program manager of the Shared Spaces Program over at SFMTA, says there will be attempts to communicate with business owners before any fines are issued. Basically, a notice of violation and orders of correction will be issued, and if there’s no response from the business owner, then they could end up being fined. Still, Munowitch says the fines are a “last resort” and that “we want everyone to have a valid permit for April 1, and for that permit to reflect that they’re in compliance.”

There are grants available to help business owners upgrade their parklets

To help business owners cover the cost of upgrading their parklets to meet the new standards, San Francisco has grants available to cover materials or professional services up to $2,500. Businesses can also apply for a permit fee reduction. On top of that, there are design classes available to contractors, designers, and business owners who are interested in learning more about the design requirements for parklets, with attendee lists posted on the website. The next class is October 27 and registration is available on the Shared Spaces site.

For more information on the legislated Shared Spaces program visit sf.gov/shared-spaces.

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