Maurizio Florese has owned the Mona Lisa restaurant in North Beach since 1979, serving up hearty Italian-American favorites in a space replete with Italian flags, snapshots of city luminaries and the subtle smile on the face of the eponymous da Vinci masterpiece.
Florese, like many other restaurant owners, has cited the outdoor parklets enabled by San Francisco’s Shared Spaces program as critical to keeping his business afloat during pandemic-related shutdowns.
More recently, however, Florese said he has received notices from city inspectors that he would likely have to chop the outdoor parklet he spent $30,000 erecting nearly in half by the end of the year to meet Fire Department and Department of Public Works guidelines.
“What am I supposed to do with five tables [outside]? They tell us close, open, close again, it’s ridiculous. If they shut us down again I’m going to retire and close permanently,” Florese said about the prospects of turning the lights off on a 40-year-old business that employs around 25 people.
“It’s crazy, it’s like they want to close us down,” a nearby waiter chimed in.
As the Shared Spaces program makes the jump from a temporary emergency measure to a permanent fixture of the city's landscape, a key question is facing business owners: how does the city plan to continue its support of one of the most visible outgrowths of the pandemic?
Legislation approved by the Board of Supervisors in July establishing the permanent version of the program was meant to keep some of the streamlined permitting of the snap measure, while moving to balance transportation and accessibility needs.
New design and operating guidelines, which include traffic protections, accessibility standards and construction guidelines, are scheduled to go into effect for current operators on Jan. 1, 2022, marking the new year as a turning point for the program. Parklet permit holders must apply for a new Shared Spaces permit before the expiration of their term if they want to continue using their space.
Mat Schuster, the chef-owner of the Canela in the Castro, said the quick initial rollout of the Shared Spaces program in the early days of the pandemic was a lifesaver for his business. In particular, he said his Spanish wine bar and restaurant has been buoyed by a changing eating culture.
“We were all very impressed and saw that San Francisco could make quick decisions to allow us to not shutter and not lay off all of our employees,” Schuster said. “San Francisco has shifted the public perspective of dining outdoors and it has allowed our city as a whole to gain what you see in places like Europe.”
However, he’s concerned the additional regulations now being tacked could puncture the life preserver his additional dining footprint has provided in the face of rising labor and food costs.
Published in May, the S.F. Office of the Controller’s most recent economic impact report on the program found businesses that installed a parklet saw average quarterly revenues grow by 29%, or $56,000, in the year following the Parklet application date.
“It all ties back to the enormous operating cost to maintain a small- and medium-sized business in San Francisco,” Schuster said. “If the business model for small businesses was actually lucrative, we wouldn’t be so tied to our outdoor space. They’ve not only given us an opportunity to survive the pandemic, but also allows us to see a future of surviving in San Francisco.”
San Francisco Small Business Commission President Sharky Laguana said the regulations were meant to balance a need to preserve business operations with public safety and access.
"What became clear as the program took off and became quite popular is that it was going to be necessary to make some changes to accommodate safety concerns from the fire department and (the Department of Public Works) in terms of taking care of the streets,” Laguana said, noting that providing access for ladders to fight structure fires as a important consideration.
Still, he recognizes that the additional regulation could lead some business owners to decide to wind down their parklets.
“Every business owner, if it was up to them, would rather not have to do anything at all, of course,” Laguana said. “But what I'd hate to see is someone who's parklet kept them stringing along now has to adapt to this new set of guidance and regulations, and they just don't have the funds to get over the fence.”
One particular sticking point Schuster identified in the permanent regulation is the requirement that businesses allow for public access to their parklets when unused for commercial purposes. Under the regulation, fixed commercial parklets are allowed to secure access to the structure between midnight and 7 a.m.
Schuster said he and his staff already spend their prep time cleaning out garbage and human excrement from the sidewalks to give diners a comfortable and sanitary dining experience. He said the requirement about public access makes “no sense,” especially considering that his restaurant is only offering dinner service at the moment.
“I would have to hire somebody to open the parklet in the morning just to have people come in and destroy it,” Schuster said.
One of the major goals of the permanent Shared Spaces legislation was to coordinate enforcement by a single agency with a “single bill of health” that would be easy for operators to understand.
But Ben Bleiman, managing partner of the Tonic Nightlife Group, said he wasn’t interested in attempting to keep up with the ever-shifting regulations. He removed the parklet outside of his Mission bar Teeth in part due to the forthcoming regulations, as well as the rebound in business he’s seen since reopening.
He added that design requirements laid out in the legislation’s guidelines make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for some businesses to keep their existing parklets. Onerous regulations include maintaining 8 feet of clearance when exiting an intersection and a 3-foot buffer required at the end of each Shared Spaces structure.
Another rule business owners find problematic—particularly going into winter—is a prohibition on parklet canopies and roofs when the sidewalk is less than 10 feet wide.
“I'm hoping [the city] may loosen some of this stuff up and are open to helping find places nearby that will work,” Bleiman said. “I think that very few parklets are going to be able to get into full compliance and for those that are it will be at great expense.”
A recently published report from civic planning organization SPUR laid out recommendations to build on temporary programs like Shared Spaces with the objective of transforming “city streets to places where public life happens for everyone.”
SPUR recommended promoting outdoor dining along underused commercial corridors. It also called for keeping the permitting process simple, in part through the use of templates for standard parklet designs that business owners can use without having to hire an engineer or designer.
The report also suggests the Mayor’s office develop a community-facing storefront where applicants can receive assistance with applications, questions and troubleshooting.
“The first and most important action is to continue to build on what’s been started,” the report says. “The city must now focus on making these programs work by removing bureaucratic barriers, identifying funding sources—especially for lower-income communities—and enhancing the prototyping and feedback loop.”
Schuster echoed that keeping the flexibility of Shared Spaces is key to its success, particularly as uncertainty abounds about the omicron variant.
“We’re still in the pandemic, so I’m confused as to why we’re setting all these regulations as if we’re out of COVID,” Schuster said. “It’s a big expense to maintain these parklets and most of us have stopped putting money into them because we don’t know what the future holds.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org