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Despite nasty weather and fees, most restaurants plan to keep their parklets

Sylvan Mishima-Brackepp, owner of Rintaro, an upscale Japanese restaurant, prepares for the next storm on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023., after its parklet was washed onto the sidewalk and its employees were forced to escape through a window, at the restaurant in San Francisco after a flash flood due to heavy rainfall over New Year’s Eve. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

In the three years since the pandemic began, the city’s Shared Spaces program has garnered its fair share of praise and criticism.

Proponents of the initiative, which helped restaurant owners fast-track outdoor dining spaces on city streets, saw it as a lifeline for an industry in crisis. And parklets remain popular among restaurant owners.

Robin Abad, director of the Shared Spaces program, told The Standard that the vast majority of restaurant owners who operated parklets during Covid have applied for post-pandemic permits. 

Shared Spaces has received 789 post-pandemic permit applications for outdoor dining to date, according to Abad. Previously, the program accepted pandemic applications on a rolling basis, and Abad could not provide an accurate count of permits requested or issued during that period. 

Parklet permitting fees have been paused since 2020. As the city prepares to reinstate the fees on April 1, Abad’s office reported that 77 business owners have opted to discontinue their parklet permits. Fifty restaurants have already removed their outdoor dining structures. 

Parklets line the side of Valencia Street in San Francisco on Oct. 13, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Some restaurateurs have complained of opaque and onerous regulations around parklets, while other Shared Spaces skeptics say the structures make city streets more dangerous, monopolize scant neighborhood parking and invite vandalism. And in the wake of a string of record-breaking atmospheric rivers, some restaurateurs say they’re ready to throw their parklets out with the stormwater.

St. Francis Fountain, a century-old luncheonette in the Mission, offered outdoor dining until about three weeks ago, when a severe storm nearly destroyed its parklet. And that was after cars had repeatedly crashed into the dining structure, according to the ice cream parlor’s manager, who asked to remain anonymous because they said they’re not an official representative for the business. 

“The winds were just out of control,” they said. “Plus, the city raised the rates on parklets in general, so we just said, ‘OK, let’s just get rid of it.’”

The manager told The Standard that because the owners are trying to sell the diner at the same moment they were coming up on the permitting deadline, going through the effort to authorize and rebuild the parklet doesn’t seem worth it. 

“They’re raising the permit to an unreasonable rate,” they said, adding that they are a bit cynical about the city’s true intentions. “I think the aim is to get restaurants to take them down.” 

Patrons eat at St. Francis Fountain in San Francisco in 2007. | Philip Neustrom/LocalWiki/Creative Commons

But at least one supervisor appears keen to help restaurants keep their parklets in place, and Abad pointed out that permits are cheaper than they were before the pandemic.

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí is expected to propose a draft ordinance as early as this week to waive first-time permit fees and provide a rebate for business owners who already paid them, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. And Abad said that parklet fees have actually decreased from pre-Covid rates, when they averaged between $8,000 and $10,000 per year.

Beginning in April, one-time permitting fees will range from $1,000 to $3,000 per parking space depending on the type of parklet—plus an extra fee for each additional parking space used. Annual licenses will range from $100 to $2,000. That means the cheapest parklet permits will now cost a little over $1,000. However, the most costly permits for a parklet taking up three parking spaces will still be about $8,000 for the first year of operation. In subsequent years, city fees will be lower, although the cost of maintaining the space will vary

Abad added that the design rules have been public for more than a year. 

“These are not new rules per se,” Abad said. “It’s just that the deadline for the new rules is looming.” 

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

Abad explained that the city has been in ongoing conversations with business advocacy groups to adapt the program as post-Covid recovery lags due to a confluence of factors like rising inflation, diminished tourism, new remote work norms and historically bad weather.

After the upcoming application deadline, Shared Spaces has granted applicants a 180-day grace period—per an ordinance introduced by Mayor London Breed and passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors—so restaurant owners can transition their parklets to meet the new criteria. Restaurant owners who don’t submit an application must remove their parklets by May 30, and the grace period for updates and inspections ends on Sept. 27.

Shared Spaces officials acknowledged that the program has gone through many iterations since 2020, but noted that they’ve worked in good faith to ensure safe parklet operation and account for things like accessible parking, loading zones and designated public bench seating. 

“If we’re going to see the program succeed for another 10 years, we have to balance all of those considerations,” Abad said. “[Shared Spaces] was a crisis response. Since then, the city has been working with neighborhoods to innovate, and innovation calls for iteration.”

Poc-Chuc parklet in San Francisco is covered in graffiti on March 14, 2023. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

For Tracy Goh, chef and owner of Damansara, the question of whether to build a parklet for her Malaysian restaurant is a non-starter for two main reasons. 

Goh said that the area of Noe Valley where Damansara is located is too cold and windy for a parklet during most of an average year in San Francisco, to say nothing of the recent extreme weather.

“Our neighbors’ awnings are ripped and ours had the metal arms broken due to the strong winds,” Goh said.

On top of that, as a fledgling pop-up turned brick-and-mortar restaurant—she opened just four months ago—Goh added that she doesn’t have the budget to build a parklet to the city’s specifications. 

The opposite is the case for Tony Gemignani, who owns four restaurants in North Beach—a foodie mecca now known for its elaborate parklets. Gemignani said that he first built a parklet at his eponymous eatery, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, about 10 years ago. Now, he maintains outdoor dining structures at all four of his businesses. Even so, under the city’s new rules, none of his parklets can remain as-is. 

“I’ve always been pro-parklet,” he said. “It’s just now the city makes it harder and harder.” 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed signs legislation that makes the city's parklets permanent on July 28, 2021, outside Etcetera Wine Bar. | Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Citing inflated demolition and construction costs added to the city’s increased permitting fees, Gemignani said he’s looking at paying up to $100,000 to tear down and rebuild the two parklets that flank Tony’s Pizza and the Slice House, his two adjacent restaurants on Stockton and Union streets, to bring them up to code—all during a record-breaking rainy season. 

Though Gemignani said he’s frustrated that he has to modify his parklets after they were all rubber-stamped during Covid, it’s still worth it for him to invest in them in an outdoor dining destination like North Beach.

“If the parklets can be permanent, they’re more than worth it,” he said.