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OPINION: San Francisco Needs Shared Spaces to Bounce Back Stronger. Here’s Why

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Spring has sprung.

San Francisco’s COVID rates are steadily declining. We’re doling out vaccines like condoms at the Folsom Street Fair. Not only can bars and restaurants *gasp* open at 50% capacity indoors, but we are no longer required to *double gasp* serve a full &#%! meal with every single &#%! beverage, outdoors at least. Couple this with a palpable, pent-up consumer demand for human interaction, food, drink, music, and general merrymaking, and dare I say, small business owners are feeling optimistic for the first time in at least a year.

Well, as much optimism as a group saddled with debt, in open war with our landlords and creditors, under constant scrutiny from, shall we say, enthusiastic local and state inspectors, and forced to remind hundreds of customers per week to please put on a &#%! mask when using the &#%! toilet can muster. We are comforted by the trends, but one thing is responsible for the glimmer of hope in our eyes more than anything else: the remarkable promise of the proposed, permanent Shared Spaces program.

Today, let’s shed some light on the Shared Spaces proposal, the details as they currently stand, the benefits and urgency of its passing for our beleaguered bars and restaurants, and some of the – I’d argue – good faith but relatively minor objections to its impact on our communities. (Full disclosure: I have been responsible for exactly 0% of the heavy lifting for this ordinance, but I have been deeply involved in the details and advocacy around it, and it is near and dear to my heart.)

Let’s start with what’s in it.

The ordinance, dubbed “Places for People,” was introduced on March 16, 2021 by Mayor Breed and cosponsored by Supervisors Mandelman, Safai, Stefani and Haney. The details are myriad, but in summary it provides a permanent path for expanded use of sidewalk seating, parking spaces (i.e. the Shared Spaces “parklets”), private areas like adjacent lots, and full street closures for use by different small businesses in SF including bars, restaurants, retail stores, gyms, salons, and more.

While the initial Shared Spaces rules were rushed to provide immediate relief to businesses in freefall, the Places for People legislation will augment the permitting process by codifying public input, fees, and stricter guidelines for use and structural design. This includes additional considerations for ADA compliance, safety, and public access, including a provision requiring at least a portion of any shared space to be available to the general public at all times of day, excluding nighttime.

Ok, now let’s talk about why we need Places for People.

First, small businesses and especially the hospitality industry were the hardest hit by the pandemic in California, and San Francisco’s err-on-the-side-of-caution lockdown rules made our local bars and restaurants among the hardest hit in the state. Business districts that relied on tourists or office workers transformed into post-apocalyptic ghost towns, while the rest of us toggled between closed completely and “sort of open” for over a year.

That entire time, rent, taxes, fees, insurance, and utility bills kept coming. A large majority of us have personal guarantees on our leases, meaning if we fail to pay our rent, our landlords can (and will) come after our life savings, college funds for our children, and assets like homes and vehicles. Government assistance such as PPP helped some of us, but for many businesses forced to shutter completely, the programs didn’t apply to them. Furthermore, there is evidence of a great migration out of San Francisco, meaning a full recovery in certain districts could take years. Adding permanent outdoor service to our business models could be literally the difference between life and death for many of our beloved small businesses.

Second, we’re going to be living with COVID for years, not just a few more months, no matter our local vaccination rates. All available health data shows that the spread of the virus is drastically reduced in outdoor spaces versus indoor spaces. Offering customers outdoor seating options in perpetuity is simply good health policy.

Finally, let’s face it. For a City that prides itself on its “European charm,” SF’s outdoor game was so weak.

For decades, onerous bureaucracy, skyrocketing fees, NIMBY neighbors, and hostile government officials have conspired to derail any attempts at expanding our use of sidewalks and other outdoor spaces. When I applied for an outdoor seating permit at Tonic on Polk Street in 2010, it took me reams of paperwork and multiple visits from inspectors to submit my application. Finally, after waiting six weeks, I received their response: We were permitted one table with one chair. For a City where people can enjoy outdoor seating literally 300 days a year (if they bring a light jacket), this is just sad. We must do better.

In closing, let’s address two of the main concerns that have surfaced about Places for People.

The first is that sidewalks and parking spaces are public land and should not be turned over to businesses for private use. I’ll admit this argument gets my inner Che Guevara all fired up, but upon closer inspection it does not stand up to basic scrutiny. For starters, the City has a long and storied history of leasing public land to private companies. For example – oh I don’t know – the entire Port of SF, including AT&T park, Pier 39, and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Additionally, most of the space being utilized by Places for People was previously utilized for parking spaces occupied by individual, privately owned cars. As one progressive Supervisor recently pointed out to me, some of the most socialist countries in the world, like Netherlands, Denmark, and France, have outdoor seating galore for businesses on their sidewalks and streets. Finally, the Places for All ordinance also requires some designated seating for the general public while they are open.

The other most commonly held concern is that Places for People parklets will occupy parking spaces that customers rely on for access to other local businesses.

Put aside for a moment that the City and County has sought to discourage the use of cars as a mode of transportation for the past decade for environmental and practical reasons. Instead, let’s just take a look at the hard numbers: San Francisco has an approximate total of 442,000 publicly-available parking spaces. Maybe 2000-3000 of these spaces would be used for Places for People parklets. I’m no statistician, but it seems to me that reimagining .56% of available parking to literally save our beloved small business community from destruction seems like a good trade-off. Also, adding foot traffic and life to our commercial districts will certainly have a positive effect on neighboring businesses, helping to attract customers and potential tenants for vacant units.

Behind our sometimes cynical facades, we small business owners are a naturally optimistic people. We have just endured a year of incredible struggle, heartbreak, and perseverance. Many of us are in deep holes, and we need the help of our entire communities to climb our way out. Nothing will be more impactful than support from our neighbors on the Places for People legislation. We believe our entire City will be better off from it.

At the very least, you owe it to us for asking you over and over again to wear your &#%! mask when using the &#%! toilet.

-Ben Bleiman is a small business owner, President of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, and founder of SF Bar Owner Alliance


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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