For Small Biz to Survive, Sidewalks Must Thrive

Expanding the 'sidewalk' space further into the street and allowing al fresco dining may be the only way restaurants can function in the time of COVID

Street seating at a cafe in Paris. Photo: Gilly Berlin
Street seating at a cafe in Paris. Photo: Gilly Berlin

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San Francisco’s small businesses are an essential part of what makes our city great. As we look forward to re-opening our city, we must do everything we can to keep as many businesses as possible.

Even with grant and loan programs such as Paycheck Protection, restaurants need cash flow. For most businesses, existing programs barely cover basic payroll, much less rent, insurance, suppliers, payment processing and marketing. The best thing we can do for our businesses is allow them to open in a safe manner as soon as possible. Some of the most beloved cities around the world from Paris to Stockholm, New Orleans to Austin can show us the way.

Paris is famous for its sidewalk cafes; Parisians and visitors alike enjoy slowly snacking, drinking and reading the newspaper at an outdoor table. Here in San Francisco, if you walk down a major commercial corridor like Valencia Street or Columbus Avenue on an (exceptionally) sunny day you’ll see San Franciscans enjoying the outdoors at cafe tables and parklets. Unfortunately, many businesses choose to forego outdoor seating due to the arduous permitting process required.

Times have changed. Being outdoors is one of the few remaining options for recreation. With our ‘summer’ coming up and shelter in place lifting, demand for outdoor space will only increase as more citizens get comfortable moving around outside.

Almost every consumer-facing business already has a public space out front: a sidewalk. Where the sidewalk is too narrow for social distancing, parking and streets should be partially or fully pedestrianized. We need to allow businesses to safely extend into this outdoor space. Our community–and especially people who live in smaller nearby apartments with limited access to sunlight–needs this space.

The mayor should use her current emergency powers to have the Department of Public Works temporarily ease restrictions for both the existing street space and cafe tables & chairs permit programs. The existing 90-day public comment period requirement should be waived for tables & chairs in cases where adequate sidewalk width remains to maintain ADA access requirements. If the sidewalk space is not adequate a street space permit should be granted in the manner of a parklet. The city has already started using the street space permitting process outside of grocery stores to create space for both curbside pickup and socially distanced lines; the program should be extended to any business who requests the space.

Many of our local businesses are small to begin with and survive only by packing the space on weekends. Respecting proper social distancing would make it impossible for many small bars and pubs to open without a subsidy. The Geary Club in the Tenderloin is a prime example. It has seating for about 10 customers elbow-to-elbow at the bar and is a place for neighbors who live in small apartments by themselves to catch up, have a drink or read a book. The smallest bar in the city, Black Horse London Pub on Union St between Russian Hill and Cow Hollow, is another neighborhood-driven local business. Currently the owner-operator, James, is cooking up cheap eats to-go, but he constantly has to remind neighbors standing outside waiting for food to spread out. The simple ability to legally place bar stools up against his windows outdoors on the 10-foot wide Union Street sidewalk would help him survive.

One of my favorite neighborhood hangouts, Shotwell’s, has already tried several variations of being open for takeout. They have currently settled on a model that entails neighbors standing spaced out on the sidewalk down the block, waiting to grab a sandwich and a beer. For me, this may be the only time I leave my apartment and talk to another human. When I asked owners David Hall and Tom Madonna what their medium-term plan was, they shrugged. “We need the city to work with us on creative ways to safely open,” they said, explaining that they can’t operate under the fear that SFPD will drive by and tell people not to drink a beer on the sidewalk while Alcoholic Beverage Control has explicitly said to-go sales are allowed.

David has a degree in Ornamental Horticulture and has always kept some well-maintained planters on the 10-foot wide sidewalk along Shotwell Street at 20th: “If the city gave us permission to bring stools and tables out to the sidewalk planters, we’d do it right this second; many of the neighbors can’t even tell we’re open by looking.”

We need action from local governments around the country to help communities regain their cultural vibrancy. Paris and other European cities have shown us the way. Let’s give businesses, and the people they serve, the space they need.

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Kurt Nelson is an advocate for livable streets, a hospitality business investor and an engineer at Uber Technologies.

For further reading on this topic, check out ‘One way to help restaurants in the future? Go alfresco by opening roads and lots to diners.’