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Parklet Problems: Restaurant Owners Struggle With New Rules, Reconsider Value of Outdoor Dining

Written by Sarah HoltzPublished Jan. 09, 2023 • 5:00am
Customers mingle at La Cocina's public parklet in the Tenderloin. | Courtesy Erin Ng/La Cocina

English

Two years ago, chef Greg Lutes put up a parklet in front of his Bernal Heights restaurant, 3rd Cousin. Like countless other restaurateurs, he was quick to offer an outdoor dining option during Covid, fearing what might happen to his business if he didn’t. And he was also careful to construct his parklet to meet city code. 

Since then, the parklet program, or Shared Spaces, has become a permanent fixture, but he’s not certain his outdoor space will be. 

“They have a lot of stipulations,” Lutes said of San Francisco’s parklet regulations. “I almost had to hire an architect to make it work.” 

And it wasn’t just the parklet permit. Lutes said he had to permit his outside heaters with the San Francisco Fire Department. Then, there was another permit for his music speakers.

After investing significant capital into necessary modifications to meet the updated guidelines, he applied to renew his permit in October but has yet to hear anything back.

For the past three years, parklets have provided a comfortable and safer outdoor dining option, but they’ve also fallen prey to vandalism, been destroyed in car accidents and even damaged by arsonists. That’s not to mention the flooding and wind damage wrought by two severe winter storms this past week. 

Now, restaurant owners are facing a Jan. 15 deadline to apply for new parklet permits or renew existing ones. Given the increasing costs and risks, restaurant owners like Lutes may be turning away from parklets entirely. 

Lutes said he’s mainly frustrated by the increasing cost to operate a parklet—estimating his total permitting costs at around $3,000. “It’s pretty cost-prohibitive for businesses that aren’t utilizing it,” he said. “I think it’s based on people’s comfort level with the virus. A year ago, people were more inclined to eat outside.”

Chef Greg Lutes, owner of 3rd Cousin in Bernal Heights, constructed his parklet before the city codified its guidelines under the Shares Spaces program. | Courtesy Greg Lutes/3rd Cousin

He said he feels that the city should do more to meet restaurants where they are as they continue to recover from the pandemic, rather than gouge them with permitting fees. “I could see charging $600 maybe, not $3,000.” 

Robin Abad, director of Shared Spaces, is quick to clarify that many of the updated guidelines are not exactly new. San Francisco has had rules for the program, including design requirements, since Shared Spaces was established. He said that the city is merely scaling up the program and codifying that list of rules.

Abad also pointed out that before Covid, parklet permitting fees were significantly more expensive than they are now, averaging $6,000 to $10,000 for each parklet. As an emergency measure to support struggling restaurants during the first three years of the pandemic, parklets were also free to operate. When the Board of Supervisors approved the new parklet program, it vastly reduced the permitting fees.

In July 2021, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation introduced by Mayor London Breed to make the Shared Spaces program permanent. The program’s updated guidelines are designed to ensure accessibility—for patrons, traffic and emergency services. 

Existing parklet permits will expire on March 31. In December, Mayor London Breed extended the renewal deadline to give restaurants more time to meet safety and accessibility guidelines. If approved, new parklet permits will go into effect April 1.

Abad added that parklet fees are slashed in half for businesses with gross annual revenues under $2 million to support those that have been slow to recover. The first annual license fee is waived entirely for new restaurant owners. 

The cost to permit a parklet is based on the number of parking spaces an operator takes up with their parklet, and whether the parklet is a moveable or fixed installation. 

Miguel Ramirez told The Standard that the parklet has been a boon for his business. He built a parklet for his Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant, Los Amigos, in October 2020. His place is located on Valencia Street in the Mission, a thoroughfare flanked by elaborate outdoor dining structures.

“I feel grateful to the city for this project to legalize restaurant parklets, and also for all the resources they are providing to be able to submit the applications,” he said. 

Likewise, culinary incubator and food hall La Cocina built an expansive parklet, complete with colorful floral flourishes, in the summer of 2022. The organization’s community programs and policy manager, Naomi Maisel, said that the city approved La Cocina’s parklet just as it established its new guidelines, and so it received approval early in the year. For La Cocina, the devil was in the details. One of the most costly modifications was to establish 6 inches of clearance for drainage. 

Maisel explained that La Cocina’s parklet has been a great benefit to her organization, but that it wouldn’t have been able to build such an attractive, functional parklet that was also permit-compliant without the support of a Community Challenge grant through the city, or the pro-bono design support it received.

Things haven’t worked out so well for other restaurant owners. Like Lutes, Alicia Walton discovered her bar’s parklet wasn’t compliant after the city updated the guidelines. She owns The Sea Star, a historic watering hole in the trendy Dogpatch neighborhood. As she told The Standard, the city deemed her parklet to be too large. Walton said she plans to reach out to Shared Spaces to see what work would need to be done to fit the new guidelines, but ultimately she believes it will probably have to come down.

Alicia Walton, owner of The Sea Star in Dogpatch, is considering taking down her bar’s parklet. | Courtesy Alicia Walton/The Sea Star

“I don’t want to spend more money on something that has a low ROI,” Walton said. “It’s a bummer, as we built a beautiful parklet, to then be told we have to cut 10 feet of it off.”

Sam Elbandak acquired a permit for a parklet during shelter-in-place but never used it. His business, The New Spot on Polk, may seem ideal for one—an all-day cafe in upscale, residential Russian Hill. He disagrees.

“I am against parklets, honestly,” he said.

Elbandak said he believed a parklet would be helpful while dining was only allowed outdoors, but now the parklets create issues for delivery trucks and other businesses that need parking spaces for their customers.

Then, there’s the issue of theft. Lutes said this is a concern at 3rd Cousin. His chairs were stolen once already—one evening while the restaurant was still open. “Luckily, they didn’t take them very far, and I was able to get them back,” he said.

Abad pointed out that the new parklet rules include an option to lock up fixed parklets between midnight and 7 a.m. to prevent theft and vandalism. Previous to the pandemic program, the city considered parklets to be public spaces and required them to remain accessible overnight.

Maisel said that La Cocina’s parklet is still expensive to maintain. “We’re taking up community and public land, and we want to make sure it’s serving everybody,” she said. “But that comes with its own challenges. Every morning, we’re picking up trash. We often have to repaint our murals. That’s the price we’re paying to provide a public space.”

Expressing gratitude for the resilience restaurant owners showed during Covid, Abad emphasized that by operating parklets, they’ve helped the city weather ongoing economic turmoil.

“It takes a lot of stamina to be a small business entrepreneur,” Abad said. “We know it’s going to take some transition time to get parklets modified, and we’re seeing folks do that. And it’s wonderful.”

Though Lutes said the permitting process has been complicated, after investing time and money into modifying his parklet, he hopes to keep it. But he added that he feels restaurants are still negatively impacted by Covid, and that the city’s parklet rules are another burden. 

“Restaurant revenue isn’t where it used to be. I still see weekly cancellations due to Covid,” he said. “Now that things are back to normal, all the taxes are back. The game has kind of changed. But such is life. I’m not expecting it to be fair.” 

English

Sarah Holtz can be reached at [email protected]


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