Young Lee said she’s just starting to bounce back after the pandemic took a toll on her restaurant. She’s now worried she could go under again amid city plans to take away a parklet in front of her restaurant, Art’s Cafe.
“I’m coming from the bottom, and I don’t want to go back there,” said Lee, who co-owns the Irving Street restaurant along with her husband, Chol.
The owners’ concerns came after the city told them it plans to remove the parklet in front of Art’s Cafe and shorten a parklet in front of neighboring Peruvian restaurant Fresca. The plan is to make space for a commercial loading zone and two parking spaces on Irving Street near Ninth Avenue.
Lee said the parklet is essential because of the cafe's limited indoor seating, which makes it hard to have enough customers to make a profit, especially during weekends when demand is high.
Art’s Cafe has 11 seats inside, but the parklet in front allows for another 12. With the parklet and three small tables next to it, their total capacity jumps to 29 customers. The extra revenue has been key as Lee and her husband dig themselves out of a tough financial situation.
The Lees bought Art’s Cafe from the previous owners in 2021 after the pandemic forced them to close their previous Oakland restaurant, Yia-Yia’s Sandwiches, in August 2020 after 15 years in business near Jack London Square.
Paying rent to operate Yia-Yia’s while attracting little business for months on end during Covid’s darkest days brought them to the brink of financial ruin. Now Lee worries that losing the parklet could make running Art’s Cafe unfeasible.
“It really stresses me out,” Lee said.
“Because of the loading zone, I think customers would be uncomfortable outside," said Joseph Lee, the owners’ son and front-of-house manager. "We’d lose a lot of profit without the parklet.”
The Lees don't actually own the parklet in front of Art's Cafe, Fresca does, but the two businesses have a deal where Art’s Cafe uses the parklet during the day and Fresca uses it at night.
Fresca owner Ivan Calvo-Perez echoed Lee’s concerns that losing the parklets will damage his profits. Calvo-Perez said his restaurant can seat 60 people, and with both parklets at night, he can seat another 42 people.
“Having 42 additional guests be able to dine has helped us to stay afloat tremendously," Calvo-Perez said in a text. "We were on the verge of closing Fresca [on] Irving Street, and the parklet has saved our lives.”
Robin Abad Ocubillo, who heads up the city’s Shared Spaces parklet program, said it still unknown exactly when the changes would happen, but the space would be used for commercial loading until 11 a.m. and a passenger pick-up zone after.
The plan was approved after a February San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency hearing and will be implemented this summer.
“This will accommodate box trucks in the morning serving local businesses; and the high turnover of passenger loading and pickup activities into the evening,” Ocubillo said.
Ocubillo said commercial and passenger loading zones are needed in order to prevent double-parking on Irving, which can pose a risk to cyclists and block the N-Judah train as it travels down the heavily trafficked business corridor.
The owners of both Art’s Cafe and Fresca said that they don’t understand why the city can’t put the loading zone somewhere else so they can keep the parklets.
“I understand the N-Judah gets blocked, but there are other places to put a loading zone,” said Fresca owner Calvo-Perez.
Lee said she has asked the city to put the commercial loading zone near Reliable Rexall Sunset Pharmacy or a Jamba Juice on the neighboring block. Jamba Juice was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Pharmacy manager David Valencia said that having a commercial loading zone in front of his pharmacy would end the 15-minute parking used by customers to pick up prescriptions, hindering the business. Valencia said finding an area to fit another commercial loading zone is tricky in that area.
“It’s such a congested corner already,” Valencia said.
Ocubillo said that the city has heard feedback from the owners of Art’s Cafe and Fresca, but the location with the parklets is the best spot for a loading zone.
“SFMTA has evaluated all alternatives for safe commercial loading on the 700 block of Irving Street, and found that the three parking spaces on the south side of Irving Street, east of Ninth Avenue, is the best location given the geometry of the street with the rail and sidewalk extensions,” Ocubillo said.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at email@example.com