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City Threatens Parklet Teardowns, Restaurants are Outraged, Mayor Responds

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We all knew deep down it was bound to happen.  All these parklets sprouted up in our city last year and brought outdoor seating, kept dining and nightlife alive, and gave a general boost to our city’s quality of life.  It all happened delightfully fast, so of course it was too good to be true, and city regulators have been tapping their clipboards and handing out fines.

Parklets on Valencia Street, SF. Photo Alex Mak

The City’s Shared Spaces team got safety and regulatory feedback from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the Fire Department, and San Francisco planning this summer.  They found out that their original parklet building plans didn’t incorporate some fire safety issues, ADA compliance, and some parklets were allowed to be built too close to traffic or too close to city corners creating blind spots for crosswalks.

No one can be surprised that over a thousand makeshift structures (roughly 1,700 parklets in SF) going up overnight in a city may pose problems down the road, even if they followed all the rules.  Some of the streets in this city are hundreds of years old, there are hundreds of oddly shaped intersections, sidewalks, curbs not to mention buildings of various shapes and sizes, of course there are problems.

“It’s the most uncoordinated, messed-up, insulting display of government incompetence,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin was reported saying in the SF Chronicle,  “It’s breathtaking.”  Peskin’s district includes Chinatown and Northbeach, where restauranteurs have been complaining about fines and warnings from multiple city agencies citing new construction rules they’ve never seen before.

It’s the most uncoordinated, messed-up, insulting display of government incompetence,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin conserning City parklet regulations.

Some restaurant owners are saying that new regulations tell them their walls are too high or maybe they have too many parklets or their parklets are too close together, and on and on.  Then they were told if they don’t fix their parklets or remove them within 14 days, they get fines of $100, then $200, then $500 on the third day onward.

Many small businesses clearly can’t afford this right now.  Reportedly some business owners had already begun dismantling their parklets in fear of further fines.

New Parklet in the Lower Haight, in front of what used to be Mad Dog in the Fog (now another Woods Beer & Wine location). Not necessarily in violation of regulations, it’s just a picture we happened to have of a parklet. – photo Alex Mak

Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association lit the fire when she told the Chronicle this week that “up to 90 percent” of parklets will need to be removed or significantly changed to meet the guidelines. And that restaurant owners were  “totally blindsided” when she and others received packets with 60 pages of new parklets guidelines in September.

“up to 90 percent” of parklets will need to be removed or significantly changed to meet the guidelines, claimed Director of Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

This morning Mayor London Breed, a staunch proponent of making parklets permanent, fired back on Medium after this tidal wave of outrage invariably landed on her desk, she wrote, “Recent reporting on this has made it seem like the program is in danger or that 90% of businesses will need to close their parklets, or that City guidelines are impossible to follow, and I want to be very clear that this is not even close to the truth.”

“First, businesses have until March to submit a plan to correct any changes that need to be made and they have until June to actually make the changes. No one is being fined or forced to change their parklet right now, except in a small handful of extreme cases for significant life safety or disability access issues. We’re working with businesses to notify them of changes that need to be made and providing educational resources and grants for how to make that happen.”

Mayor Breed also wrote, “Here’s the situation: in the long-run, we need to implement guidelines so that structures don’t pose a fire hazard, block Muni stops, or violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. We allowed for a lot of flexibility during the pandemic because we were in an unprecedented situation, and now we’re working with businesses to notify them of changes that need to be made and slowly bring them into compliance.”

“No one can be surprised that thousands of makeshift structures going up overnight in a city may pose problems down the road.” said local prognosticator, Alex Mak.

It’s healthy for our supervisors and small business owners to complain and call out city regulators, this war of words will help stabilize the situation by informing everyone. The city stopped issuing fines and started listening more carefully to its small business owners.   Many business owners will read articles like this and find out that fines are no longer being enforced, and that they have more time.

What this is really coming down to is, who is going to foot the bill to fix and update all the existing parklets?  Because these things are not cheap in San Francisco.  The mayor’s office has made grants of $2,500 available to restaurants to help owners make fixes. A total of $500,000 in all.

But some businesses have up to 6 parklets that the city has ordered dismantled, the owner of Red Window in North Beach told the Chronicle it will cost up to $15,000 just to dismantle his parklets.  Depending on the size of the parklet these structures can cost upwards of $50,000 just to construct.  Not to mention the time and business lost while you’re building or rebuilding.

Hell, just to get a license to build a commercial parklet with the entertainment fee costs $3500, then $2,200 annually.

The initial Commercial Parkle license costs $3000, then $2,00 annually.   That doesn’t include other fees.  Source: Shared Spaces Design Guidelines

In May of this year the city reported a tax surplus of $157.3 Million, let’s put more of that into getting parklets up to code, this city falls apart without our small businesses, and we need them now more than ever.  $500k in grants is nowhere near enough to go around, if we want these parklets to stand the test of time as our Mayor has intimated, we need to invest in them as a city.  It’s not the restauranteur’s fault regulations have changed, it’s not really the city’s fault or the Shared Spaces planner’s fault either, we’ve never done anything like this before.  Things evolve and we learn from our mistakes.

Everyone wants safe parklets. 

We panic-built structures during a pandemic, now let’s work together to make them safe, and share the burden.  What would be the real crime is letting more small businesses go under.

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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