S.F. made parklets permanent — but added so many rules that many restaurants plan to tear


Chelsea Hung spent $5,000 on the parklet to help save her family’s 25-year-old restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, getting the necessary permits and rejoicing when the city announced that the popular Shared Spaces program would continue.

But in October, her hope for a future of outdoor dining diminished. She began receiving warnings that Washington Bakery & Restaurant’s parklet wasn’t up to code. The notices from multiple city agencies cited rules that she’d never seen: The walls needed to be lowered. The roof needed to be removed. It could only occupy one parking space. And if it wasn’t all fixed in 14 days, she’d be fined $100, then $200, then $500 on the third day onward.

Hung’s is among a number of San Francisco businesses now facing this difficult reality: Though the Board of Supervisors voted in July to make parklets permanent, the city also imposed new rules and regulations that may force many restaurants to tear their outdoor dining structures down.

Laurie Thomas, executive director of city trade group Golden Gate Restaurant Association, estimates that as many as 90% of parklets will need to be removed or significantly changed to meet the guidelines, which span more than 60 pages. Though restaurants have a June 30, 2022, deadline to come up to code, many businesses are already being warned that they will be assessed hefty fines if they don’t make these changes within weeks.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he’s been hearing from panicked restaurateurs in Chinatown and North Beach for weeks, some of whom are getting notices that conflict with each other. Owners tell him they are confused and struggling to get clear answers.

“It’s the most uncoordinated, messed up, insulting display of government incompetence,” said Peskin, who’s said he is planning new legislation in hopes of temporarily stopping fines. “It’s breathtaking.”

Since the Snug’s parklet is located at an intersection, it will to be removed or moved by 20 feet.

Since the Snug’s parklet is located at an intersection, it will to be removed or moved by 20 feet.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Despite these violation notices, Jeff Cretan, spokesperson for Mayor London Breed’s office, said the city is not currently collecting fines and is working to delay enforcement for fines. Certain fines related to accessibility and emergency responders are allowed under the law passed by the supervisors.

The new guidelines consider the parklets’ “cumulative impact on our key commercial corridors and sidewalks,” Cretan said in an email. Robin Abad-Ocubillo, manager of the city’s Shared Spaces program, could not be reached for comment.

Shared Spaces started last year as an emergency program, aimed at providing small businesses with an option when indoor activities were prohibited. Many restaurants spent from $10,000 to $50,000 to build outdoor dining setups, and the program accomplished its goal to boost sales: in a recent survey conducted by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, about four out of five respondents said they don’t think they can survive without Shared Spaces and that they’d have to lay off employees if they lost their parklet.

Rules governing the structures have changed several times over the last year. In the fall of 2020, the rulebook was just seven pages long. Restaurant owners who spoke to The Chronicle said they carefully followed the established rules, assuming they wouldn’t dramatically change in the future. When the Board of Supervisors kept the program alive this summer, a new set of regulations were not yet in place.

But unbeknownst to many businesses, the Shared Spaces staff drafted new guidance, incorporating feedback from agencies such as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the Fire Department and San Francisco Planning. The expanded regulations, the city says, are intended to make outdoor dining structures safe and accessible in the long run, with several mandates geared toward the Americans with Disabilities Act and first responders.

The resulting new regulations will impact restaurants differently depending on their parklets’ locations; precise rules can vary based on the width of the sidewalk or the restaurant’s proximity to a crosswalk, bus stop or loading zone.

Some of the new rules, though, will affect a wide swath of the more than 1,000 Shared Spaces permit holders in San Francisco. Businesses can build on a maximum of two parking spaces (though some exceptions may be made). Each parklet must allow for a three-foot buffer from the next parking space on each side. Any parklet located on an intersection will need to be removed.

A person passes by the Snug’s parklet at 2301 Fillmore St. in San Francisco. Since it’s located at an intersection and takes up five parking spaces, the parklet requires significant changes.

A person passes by the Snug’s parklet at 2301 Fillmore St. in San Francisco. Since it’s located at an intersection and takes up five parking spaces, the parklet requires significant changes.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

The mayor’s office said it sought out restaurateur feedback before finalizing the rules, and is providing $2,500 grants to help owners make fixes. It’s unclear how much grant money is available.

But GGRA’s Thomas said she was “totally blindsided” when she and other parklet permit holders first got the packet of new guidelines in September. She said she expected she’d see a draft of the manual before it went public, and that it contained many rules she’d never heard of before.

The size of the city grants are “a little bit of a joke” considering the costs and lost revenue, said Zack Schwab, one of the owners of Pacific Heights bar the Snug. He believes he’ll have to completely tear down his $50,000 parklet because it covers five parking spaces and sits near an intersection, and he can’t easily remove sections of it. As a result, the bar will have 80 fewer seats.

“I think we all understand certain things need to be part of a permanent building code to be safe for pedestrians and first responders,” Schwab said, “but we’re frustrated because the rules weren’t even written when we were all told to build these things to save our businesses.”

The enforcement of the new rules has also been confusing for many business owners. Peskin said he’s heard from restaurateurs who’ve gotten notices from the fire department, Public Works department and SFMTA, and sometimes their messages are at odds, he said.

Plus, the city’s decision to delay fines hasn’t reached many restaurateurs, some of whom are already dismantling their parklets. Others say the proposed two-week timeline for making changes is untenable due to both supply issues and finances.

When Washington Bakery’s Hung got violation notices, she said there was no way she could find a contractor and the money to spend on lumber in just two weeks. Meanwhile, North Beach bar Red Window has been told it has until Wednesday to dismantle six parklets or it could start seeing fines, said co-owner Elmer Mejicanos.

“It’s just assumed we have the money to fix it when we built these things to survive,” said Mejicanos, who estimates it’ll cost $15,000 just to break them down.

Red Window received a notice stating it has until Wednesday to fix its parklets.

Red Window received a notice stating it has until Wednesday to fix its parklets.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Trying to contact someone at Shared Spaces for clarity on all of this has been difficult, according to North Beach restaurateur Tony Gemignani. Gemignani received a letter from Shared Spaces telling him he has to dismantle an entire $35,000 structure because he has four parklets for one restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. But he actually has two businesses with two separate addresses on that corner, Tony’s and Slice House.

“We’ve had these structures for a long time and suddenly someone from the city is walking around with a clipboard,” Gemignani said. “We have this new variant, no one knows what the future holds, and the city wants me to tear out what we built.”

Peskin said he agreed with several of the new rules, including a mandate that parklets can’t have roofs if the sidewalk is less than 10 feet wide, which ensures emergency responders can easily prop up a ladder to get inside a building on fire. But many guidelines, he said, are “too rigid,” such as telling restaurants that have several parklets to go down to two.

“Those kinds of safety issues, you’ll have no argument out of me,” Peskin said. “But a lot of it doesn’t seem to have rhyme or reason.”

The confusion has put the many business owners in limbo. In the Richmond district, the team at dim sum spot…



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