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Outdoor parklet dining is about to get smaller, more accessible—and more limited

Madison Smith (L), Cecily Doonan (C) and Emily Bengle sit at Anina’s parklet on Hayes Street in San Francisco Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/ The Standard | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Nils Marthinsen, managing partner of Belle Cora, was selling wine out the window for 50 cents on the dollar in the early days of the pandemic, resigned to the fact that his North Beach bistro was destined to close. 

That last-ditch move resulted in an outpouring of community support, a chef borrowing Belle Cora’s kitchen for an award-winning burger and a pathway to survival to his business. Belle Cora’s parklet made it possible. 

“It’s what I always wanted this place to be,” said Marthinsen, who has a live band play on the parklet’s shock of artificial green grass six nights a week. “These series of events and the parklets have 100% saved my business.”

Now, as pre-pandemic life returns to North Beach, Marthinsen is faced with the task of turning what was an emergency lifeline into a more permanent part of the city’s streetscape. 

It’s been more difficult than expected to bring his space into compliance.  

The city wants him to shorten it by one parking space, although it might allow an exemption. Marthinsen says he needs the space for the revenue and live music and is getting ready to argue his case to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). 

Belle Cora owner Nils Marthinsen stands in the restaurant's parklet in the North Beach neighborhood on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. | Magali Gauthier for The Standard

Similar conversations are happening all over San Francisco as the Shared Spaces parklet program shifts to a permanent, regulated system. City officials argue that the transition is necessary to balance accessibility, mobility and public safety concerns. But the regulations are forcing many business owners to scale back or remove the spaces entirely.   

Those seeking to operate past when the temporary program ends March 31, 2023, are required to submit a permit application by Nov. 1. While there’s quibbling about the exact number, the vast majority will need to be adjusted or removed. 

After initial review by the SFMTA and a public notice period, business owners will have time to make modifications. The permits themselves are issued by the Department of Public Works (DPW).

The city detailed the parklet requirements in an extensive manual, which includes 20-feet clearance from an approaching intersection, a 3-foot buffer at either end of the structure and a minimum 3-feet emergency access gap every 20 feet. Roofs and canopies, though widely used, are discouraged.

There are also particular policies around heaters—a lifesaver in chilly San Francisco weather. Electric heaters require a permit for an outdoor outlet from the Department of Building Inspection. Propane heaters require their own permit from the fire department. 

For many businesses, meeting code will cost tens of thousands of dollars. That’s in addition to the permit cost of $3,000, plus $1,500 for every additional parking space and a $2,000 annual per-parking space licensing fee, although some discounts for smaller businesses exist. 

Robert Brownstone dances with Lucy Mae, a friend’s baby, while Colm O’Riain and Wade Peterson perform in the parklet at Belle Cora in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco
Robert Brownstone dances with Lucy Mae, a friend's baby, while Colm O'Riain and Wade Peterson perform in the parklet at Belle Cora. | Magali Gauthier for The Standard | Source: Magali Gauthier for The Standard

The upshot? The permanent Shared Spaces program may be better designed and less obstructive—but ultimately much more limited.

There were around 1,200 parklets that dotted the city at their peak. As of Oct. 12, there have been about 297 applications submitted.

“The times have changed, and the environment has shifted. The program we put together two years ago was really about meeting the demands of that particular moment,” said Robin Abad-Ocubillo, the director of the city’s Shared Spaces program. 

Lillian Wong, the manager of the Fueling Station, a cafe in Russian Hill said she’s waiting until the deadline closes in before she submits her paperwork. She understands the required safety and ADA accessibility changes, but is frustrated that every parklet is required to have an open bench that’s publicly accessible even outside business hours.

“The bench thing is so San Francisco—it sounds good in theory, but becomes much more difficult when it’s put into practice,” Wong said. 

Many operators are also bothered about potential labor costs if they are required to have the bench publicly open from 7 a.m. to midnight and outside of normal business hours. Marthinsen said he was concerned about the possibility of the public bench attracting behavior that could threaten his beer and wine license, like someone drinking hard liquor while using the bench as a place to sit. The scenario isn’t too far-fetched based on numerous experiences over the past two years, Marthinsen said. 

Abad-Ocubillo clarified that requirement to mean one bench per parking space, and said the seating should accommodate two or three people comfortably. He added that state regulators are still drawing up policies for alcohol service in parklets. 

“These spaces are in the public realm, and we want to ensure that this activation and investment continues to serve not just commercial parklets, but also the spirit of the public parklets that existed prior to the pandemic,” said Monica Munowitch, deputy director of the Shared Spaces program.

In typical San Francisco fashion, the Shared Spaces program is managed by an alphabet soup of agencies including SFMTA, the Planning Department, the Department of Building Inspection and the SF Fire Department. With the goal of allaying confusion, the city set up a combined database and a public-facing Shared Spaces permit tracker.

The Transamerica tower looms over North Beach business parklets.
The Transamerica tower looms over North Beach business Parklets on May 12, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Anne Cervantes, CEO of architecture firm Cervantes Design Associates, recently took part in a training session meant to help professionals better understand the regulated program. She noted that while some neighborhoods are booming post-Covid, many corridors are still struggling to make ends meet.

“Many smaller mom-and-pop businesses in the Mission, for example, are just not there yet,” Cervantes said. 

The city has contracted with SF New Deal to help educate operators about the new regulated system and take advantage of its equity grant program. The nonprofit has held Shared Spaces workshops for operators and conducted phone and email outreach to hundreds of businesses in English, Spanish and Chinese.   

“It’s an overwhelming reality for many of these operators, which may have spent tens of thousands building these, to get a notice from the city that it is not up to code,” said Jacob Bindman, chief program officer for SF New Deal. 

Bindman said his team has been focused on clearing up misconceptions and walking operators through less expensive pathways to draw up and submit their site plans. Though helpful, the $2,500 equity grants take the form of reimbursements after a business fronts construction and design costs. 

“If you’re a business operator that has $25,000 worth of work to do, you’re probably spending a lot of your time thinking about the $22,500 you still have to come up with,” Bindman said, noting rising building costs. 

Ultimately, SF New Deal’s vision includes linking qualifying businesses up with local artists to beautify their parklets. The first steps, though, are just getting qualified folks through the application process and educating operators that while they may have used their parklet as a pandemic lifeline, it may not have a place in the new system.

Joann Leiwoo, owner of Jo Jo's Cafe in Ingleside recently made that determination herself. A nice thing to have when indoor dining was prohibited has turned into a magnet for graffiti, trash and worse. 

She tore her parklet down in September after more than two years of operation. Ultimately, maintaining it was more trouble than it was worth.

“Do you know how to get the parking meter reactivated?” Leiwoo said when we spoke. “At least maybe the city can make some money off the space again.”